“The Frazzled, Interstate Roadtrip to Thanksgiving in Paradise”: Episode 11 of The Rocky Mountain Rubber Tramp

The Golden Hour of sunset at Grandview Beach from the surfer neighborhood of Leucadia in the city of Encinitas, California, San Diego County.

Again, let’s stay with these journal entries, shall we, dear reader…? We have much ground to cover once again, and I’d like us to do it in the moment, as best we can. Let us rejoin our journey reflecting from the future of what is now, or has been up to this point. The following is taken from a journal entry looking back upon the past…

“Now, I look back and think of those days in Leucadia (Encinitas) and all the anxiety I had on the trip heading out. Most unnecessary, in retrospect.

Because I delayed so long in getting off the property, “camping” at Dowdy Lake — which meant staying at ****’ place, in the comfort of a home — lingering at Pawnee National Grasslands, detouring to Longmont and leaving in an ice-storm (STUPID! NEVER AGAIN!) I was weeks behind schedule and frazzled to the bone.

I-25 from Trinidad, CO, to Las Vegas, NM, (over Raton Pass during construction) was unnerving, and I got into Storrie Lake Campground not long before it closed at 5:00 pm. I couldn’t find a place to store the camper, except to park it at an RV campground just a couple miles away (at $125/week). Then off to SoCal on I-25 through Santa Fe and Albuquerque traffic and hills — NO FUN!

Hopping on I-40 was crazy with big truck traffic and even bigger accidents, stacking up a parking lot for miles. Terrible anxiety here. I would pull into truck stops to shake and get sick. I had to confront my fears to not turn back. Started smoking little cigars and drinking coffee all day…

I finally got out of New Mexico and into Arizona, entering the Navajo Nation Reservation, the largest in the United States (and the world — according to the welcome sign) on the old Route 66. It was getting dark, and the topography started to flatten and disappear. Lots of billboards for authentic jewelry, crafts, blankets and flatbread. More trash on the roadside than elsewhere, and the service stops were in disrepair. Poverty has a firm grip here. Third World in America.

Spider Rock in Canyon de Chelly National Monument on the Navajo Nation Reservation in northeastern Arizona. (Photo by Brian W. Schaller)

I pulled off in Chambers and was lucky to get a room at a motel. The thermostat was broken and the TV didn’t work, so I got a different room. I felt ghosts. Seriously. I tried to relax. I wanted a beer, but the nearest liquor store was over 40 miles away, off the reservation. I guess they don’t sell alcohol on the Rez. Probably a good thing…

The best thing about this stay was that I could take a warm/hot shower for the first time since being at ****’s, which was a couple weeks prior. The temp was 16 degrees (“feels like” 9 degrees, according to my phone) and there was frost on BroBo [the “Bronze Bomber” Nissan Pathfinder] when I woke early and got on the road, after sharing my complimentary breakfast of eggs, sausage and hash browns with Rambeaux [my dog], who has shadowed me with tail tucked and ears down the entire time we’ve been here. It is a spooky place. I guess she feels the ghosts as well.

I was glad to get on the road, with the sun at my back. Soon, we were rolling through the Petrified Forest National Park, which reminded me of slides [camera pictures projected on a screen] from when our family was returning from Ft. Huachuca, AZ, where my dad was stationed with the Ready Reserves in 1961–62, in JFK’s call-up in response to the Berlin Wall Crisis. I was only one and two years old, but the slides are my lifelong reminder.

I finally got off the I-40 (Thank God!) and angled SW through beautiful mountain forests: Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest and Tonto NF down to Fountain Hills. Then, I hit Phoenix and gridlock traffic — the day before Thanksgiving. Definitely the most stressful part of the trip — so far.

But I got through, and tumbled further down to the I-8 at Gila Bend. I was really frazzled now, but there was no turning back. I’d been skirting the edge of the Sonoran Desert National Monument and saw saguaro (sa-wa-ro) cacti for the first time I can remember. Lots of them. Huge ones, with many arms. Very old, I’m told. There were also prickly-pear cacti the size of large juniper bushes exploding from the desert sand.

Saguaro and other cacti on the Arizona desert. (Unattributed photo from Saguaro National Park website).

I wish I didn’t have to pay attention to the road, but it was all mountain driving for a couple of hours before dropping down to the hot, dry desert. Pine trees turned to palm trees, and I felt I was already in Southern California.

The I-8 has less tractor-trailer traffic than I-40 (which branches into Los Angeles), but we did pass a convoy of about 30 military vehicles with big, desert tires going 45 mph. Troop transports, fuel trucks and some other utility vehicles with graffiti on the doors and the rear truck missing a tail light — all on the busiest travel day of the year. I guess the National Guard (or whoever they were) was making a public pitch for better equipment.

Then I passed all the head lettuce fields and the trucks (double trailer) that are hauling cases away. All that water to grow head lettuce in Arizona deserts for the fast-food burger chains of America’s Southwest. Great. Golf courses, too.

I got a bad rub from Arizona when one of the first billboards I saw, after getting off the Rez, was an old poster of Obama with teeth blacked out and big ears drawn on. It was old — and looked it — but no one took it down, here in the only state that doesn’t celebrate Martin Luther King Day. Enough said.

I drove through Maricopa County, where the Good Ol’ Boy sheriff had made inmates wear pink and white striped uniforms. I think he ran for higher office, and lost. Justice served.

I finally made it into California (Yeehaw!), and got off the interstate in El Centro, a little over two hours shy of Encinitas. It was a great stay, with beautiful bougainvilleas overtaking fences. I’ve always loved being in California — except for all the people. I refreshed at the attached restaurant/bar — which had a Denny’s menu and karaoke in the back. Kind of strange… Great night’s sleep and another shower, then back on the I-8 heading west.

Soon we’re out of ag land and into the Imperial Valley and sand dunes. Then, we ran into huge piles of rocks which quickly became mountains as we climbed out of Ocotillo to Jacumba Hot Springs, where I stopped to get fuel for BroBo and a sandwich for me. Gas was $4.59/gallon, so I just took on enough to get to Encinitas. It was tough, stressful driving through fog, rain, wind gusts and curves. Seemed to take forever to get out of these mountains… On the way back I measured the distance from sea level on the ocean side to the flats on the other side of the mountains — it was over 65 miles (from Alpine to Ocotillo). Went through scrub country with an inspection point for border patrol, making sure you aren’t bringing in prohibited vegetation as part of their “pest exclusion” program — the itty-bitty illegal aliens you didn’t know you carried. Then barreling down through reservations of tribes I’d never heard of, on what was called the Kumeyaay Highway. Very interesting stretch…

Then, BAM! Down to the flats from 4,500' in the Jacumba Mountains and onto the 805, and then playing automobile roulette on the dreaded I-5 right up to the doorstep of A&Z’s [my daughter and her beau] just before noon on Thanksgiving Day. Hallelujah! No more driving for several more days! Hoka Hey!

Amanda [my beautiful daughter] was jamming with the food preparations in the kitchen, so we boys — Zach [her amazing fiancée], CJ [my wonderful son] and me [a very proud and thankful old man] — took the dogs [Rambeaux and Ember] for a walk/run/tear at the sand-pit overlooking the beach, where we would later have a post-feast bonfire. It was paradise on the ocean’s edge. Sunny with a breeze, and that big, blue piece of endlessness stretching to places I can only imagine.

The meal was excellent, their fantastic friends brought side dishes and dessert, and then we waddled down to the beach for a sunset blaze and drone photo coverage. Coolers of cold drinks and music from cell phone speakers rounded out the firepit flame-dance. The full moon rose as the orange sun set, in what is known as the Golden Hour. It takes that long for the solar orb to sink below the horizon, somewhere far out over the Pacific. It was my first ocean sunset, and I don’t have the words to describe how beautiful and magical it was. Locals gather for it every night they can. No wonder there are so many people in Southern California. It really is a paradise (again, except for all the people. I’m a small-town boy at heart).

Moonrise behind a lifeguard station on the beach after the Thanksgiving meal.

I’m there now…as clouds frame the lunar orb, and lifeguard stations are eerily illuminated. Cans of Pacifico and slices of lime from a zip-lock bag can’t keep all the sand at bay. But that’s life at the beach, I guess. I’ll take it…

Overall, it was an enchanted night! Everyone is chillin’ in their own way, staring into the fire and diggin’ it in their world. Southern California has its own, unique culture. Everyone is friendly — and beautiful. I love it, but I don’t really fit the groove. But, that’s alright. I’m just here visiting my family for the holiday. I made the trek, sketchy though it was, and I just don’t want to embarrass myself — not too much, anyway. That isn’t easy…but nobody notices.

Friday and Saturday fly by quickly. After a big Zach-made breakfast of eggs, bacon, avocado, Odwalla fruit smoothies and gourmet (to me, anyway) coffee, we tool down the 101 [part of California 1, or the Pacific Coast Highway] to UC-San Diego (in La Jolla), where Amanda works. She took us to the Birch Aquarium to view some amazing sea creatures interact on the other side of tall glass panels. I love that stuff — we all did.

Then we tour the Scripps Seaside Forum area, where they will be married at the brink of the surf. Time passes fast…children grow so quickly…all in the seeming blink of an eye…don’t sleep! Then we blast back to A&Z’s for the sunset, chillaxing and leftovers. The dogs are getting along quite well.

Saturday is Small Business Day in Leucadia, so we stroll the 101 (fantastic, funky streetscapes with boutiques, galleries and restaurants). The aroma from the Leucadia Donut Shoppe is incredible and familiar from last year’s visit. Déjà vu, all over again.

Looking up the coast from Grandview Beach in the Leucadia hamlet of Encinitas, California.

We eat fantastic, fresh seafood at the Encinitas Fish Shop (just as good as last year’s meal at Fish 101), then bop into a few bodegas as well as some art and craft galleries. We had blood-orange sangrias at the quaint, petite jewelry store where Zach bought the wedding ring. It’s a beauty. Ohio State (Zach’s alma mater) stomped Michigan earlier, and everyone was wearing their Buckeye wardrobe. It was wonderful fun, and good for me to do some walking. All that driving had made my knee stiff.

Then, back to the crib for maximum chillaxing and a movie, “The Disaster Artist” with James De Franco and his son — a pretty unique movie. Great acting and story. Soft furniture too. Enveloping…

On Sunday we drive up the coast to Carlsbad, where Zach first lived, and have lunch at Senor Grubby’s for their major-league burritos. Next, off to Merrells at the Outlet Mall for cool clothing (Christmas gifts) before returning to the apartment to watch the NFL. The f**king Packers got beat by the Viqueens 24–17. FOCK!

One last night of sleep in the guest room and early the next morning is good-bye to the kids — never easy. Zach and I have breakfast and exchange farewells…and just like that, I’m back on the road…

I leave at 9:30, when Google says that rush has hour flushed, then hop back on the I-5 to the 805 to I-8 and back into those scrubby, stony, twisting and pitching mountains, which isn’t near so bad after days of non-driving and sunshine and rest. I have the best day on the road and make it to Eloy, AZ, where this journal rejoins…

— Journal Entry Reflection: Friday; November, 30th, 2018; 10:53 am. Back at Storrie Lake Campground; Las Vegas, New Mexico; in my camper, Cochise.

Alright then, dear reader, let’s stop here. I’m getting a bit tired from all that activity, good food and fun — Southern California style. We’ll pick it up where this left off, with the next episode of The Rocky Mountain Rubber Tramp. I hope you choose to join us then, and thanks for coming along on the ride! We’ve made it this far…let’s see where we go next. Orale!

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Kurt Buss

I’ve been writing for publication since it was done on typewriters, oh so long ago. I try to bridge the gap between the then and now of being a Baby Boomer.