The winter sun weakens. We slow, snuggle, and loll in dreams. Life retreats, hibernates, gathers itself into a still core. Days are short and feeble, nights long and cold. The sun slows to a stop. We turn inward to draw from the deep, dark well of winter.
Here in Northern California, the summer dry season ends and it starts to rain. The hills sprout green. Merlin enjoys the rainy season. He frolics in the rain, splashes through the deepest puddles, races around the muddy fields, and rolls in the soggy fresh grass. At home, we towel off, light candles against the dark, and snuggle into a warm puppy pile under sleeping bags.
On winter solstice eve, we walk a candlelit labyrinth.
Over the next few days we watch the light, willing it to strengthen. By Christmas, we notice days are just a tad longer and brighter. Spring is a long quarter year away, but on the winter solstice, light returns to the world. Hope is renewed.
We celebrate the re-turn of the sun, imagining ancient sky watchers who set stones and timbers to mark the weakest extreme of the sun’s yearly journey. The Neolithic great chambered tomb of Newgrange in Ireland is aligned to winter solstice sunrise. A shaft of dawn light flowed into the passageway to illuminate triple spiral carvings in the heart of the tomb. You can watch it live via internet webcam. It was cloudy this year.
Winter solstice sunset was also a popular Neolithic holiday and Stonehenge hosts a spectacular light show. Aussie dog Merlin has yet to travel (physically) to Stonehenge, but I have visited a dozen times. A UNESCO World Heritage site in southern England, Stonehenge is a interminable magnet of mystery, controversy, speculation, and spectres. Winter solstice is my favorite time. No crowds, long strafing light, misty muted stones. The sun is a pale circle crawling along the southern sky towards the great gate of stones. At sunset it sinks between the trilithons and seems to pause. It hangs hitched to the henge, light pouring fourth along the winter solstice sunset/ summer solstice sunrise alignment with the outlying Heel Stone. Stonehenge has marked the sun’s journey for over 5,000 years. Now, you have to watch from the road through the fence to stand on the exact winter alignment. It’s worth it.
Dec 21, 2008
Jul 25, 2008
Ah, this is the life: wide open road, level horizon, stop whenever, sleep, drive again, just me and Merlin. Ah, endless road trip.
We cross the Missouri River into Iowa, and promptly stop at a shiny new Iowa Welcome Center. It’s like walking into the future- climate controlled glass, chrome, etched rock walls, original fine art, and motion detecting everything, including the chilled drinking fountains. Illuminated vending machines calmly hum. There’s wireless internet. A covered walkway leads to the information center where square birch islands of cheerful brochures pose beneath a parade of area maps. A perky historical society volunteer smiles and asks what she can help me find. I tell her about Merlin’s Road Trip and she thinks that sounds like a grand adventure. She hands me a map of antique shopping towns with a wink. I ask for a picnic stop recommendation. “Oh, there’s the Jesse James Historical Site.” Perfect.
An hour later we’re at the scene of the world’s first robbery of a moving train. Allegedly, the notorious James Gang had discovered the drama and ease of heisting trains. Choosing remote, unguarded locations to derail mobile cash seemed the ideal crime of the future, and a healthy alternative to getting shoot by bank guards in towns. In the summer of 1873 they learned about $75,000 in gold due to depart Cheyenne for Chicago on the new mainline Rock Island and Pacific Railroad. The outlaws fortified themselves with pies purchased from the section foreman’s wife, and camped in the hills near Adair waiting to topple the train. On July 21, 1873 with a track removed and the engine on its side, Jesse and Frank James convinced the guard to open the safe, but the gold shipment had been delayed. Enraged, they ransacked the passengers, collecting only $3,000. Telegraph alerts shot around the country. Armed posses chased the gang all the way to Missouri, where they disappeared... A bit of rail is all that remains of the Adair railroad line. And it is a lovely spot for a picnic.
Iowa is America’s middle, the land between two rivers, where I-80 runs almost straight east west, like an Indian road aligned to the Equinox, or the promise of a better future. All sorts of normal people are from here, like American Gothic painter Grant Wood and U.S.S. Starship Enterprise Captain James T. Kirk. The radio choices are talk, country, sports or Christ. Merlin settles in for a day of drive-by sniffing of cows as we listen to the next caller getting around to his point. Merlin settles in for a day of drive-by cows sniffing as we listen to the next caller getting around to his point.
Somewhere in the middle of the Tall Corn State, we pull into a welcome Iowa Interstate Safety Rest Area. Iowans never abbreviate. They have the time to say everything they mean to say, and they take the time to say everything they mean. In my initial exodus from Michigan to California, I stopped in a Poweshiek hardware store to get a rain tarp for my U-Haul trailer full of all my earthly possessions. I asked for a tarp. A chap in a red checkered shirt asked if I meant to request a tarpaulin that resisted wind shear and had been water proofed and was fitted with reinforced grommets and did I have a preference for dark midlands forest green or lapis lazuli blue. I stared back and tentatively said green, please. Perhaps it’s an indicator of a good life to have the time to never abbreviate. Perhaps its a side effect from watching corn grow.
Merlin and I play with the Interstate Safety Rest Area automatic drinking fountain detector while truckers surf the web. Merlin gets covered in ladybugs. For the next 50 miles, I shoo ladybugs out the windows, thinking of Jimmy Stewart’s Charles Lindbergh giving his insect hitchhiker an aw shucks last chance to escape before his Spirit of St. Louis left land for the icy Atlantic. In the movie version of Lindbergh's historic 1927 first solo non-stop transatlantic flight, an airline executive warns that the New York to Paris feat isn’t like dropping a mail bag in Keokuk, Iowa. Fifty years after Jesse James was robbing trains, Lindbergh flew airmail for the army and once hopped a night train after his plane went down in a Midwest blizzard. He said he believed in things he could touch: an instrument panel, a pressure gauge, a compass. I'd seen the Spirit of St. Louis in the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum. It's smaller than our front seat. Merlin and I sip our canteens and check our gauges. As we’re calculating our next fuel stop, signs announce the World’s Largest Truck Stop. We have to stop. Dwarfed by several hundred semi-trucks, we fuel up. I decline the wi-fi service. Merlin declines the dog wash service.
The Mississippi River is calm here at Davenport as dusk lifts a near full moon over the eastern trees. We drive up the bluff and romp about on the lawn of the closed Welcome Center. A jay squawks and I wonder if it’s an east of the Mississippi or west of species. Indian mounds dot the Mississippi River bluffs. During a 1990’s pre-Merlin road trip, I explored Effigy Mounds National Monument after following the Wisconsin River west with Lewis and Clark. I stood in their footsteps 500 feet above the roaring confluence of the Wisconsin and Mississippi Rivers, now Wyalusing State Park, where they had first seen the Mississippi after hearing it for days. Their complete 1804-06 journals are now online in the Library of Congress American Memory Collections. The rivers meet at Prairie du Chien, French for Prairie of the Dog Merlin notes.
Some time later, find ourselves looking for lodging in Peru. We could have gone on to Ottawa or Marseilles, but our bums were sore from sitting. We check in to a sparse dog friendly motel and check out a huge corn field dog run out back under the stars. We’ll figure out where we really are in the morning. Ah, endless road trip.
Day Seven: Crossing the Mississippi to Peru.
Lincoln, Nebraska to Peru, Illinois. 545 miles.
Jul 1, 2008
Breakfast is another fresh self-made waffle. We GOT to get one of these machines when we get home. Merlin was hoping for a triple King Kong burger but they weren’t open for breakfast. Feeling the miles ahead smirking at our languid progress, we zip onto the highway.
Traveling Interstate 80 one merges with the deep current of American driving freedom. Much of I-80 is the original Lincoln Highway, the first automobile road across America. Planned in 1913 to link Times Square to San Francisco’s Lincoln Park, it traveled through 13 states, 10 of which Merlin and I will touch on our road trip. The highway onramp sports proud blue signs proclaiming the Eisenhower Interstate System. Young Eisenhower had driven the Lincoln Highway across America in 1919 with the U.S. Army’s first Transcontinental Motor Convoy. Crawling from Washington DC towards San Francisco, they fixed cracked bridges and pulled their trucks out of mud and sand for two months. Eisenhower titled the trip, Through Darkest America With Truck and Tank. He later discovered the German autobahn network and when he became President, launched the National Interstate and Defense Highways Act, the largest American public works project. We thank Ike as we glide along the smooth ribbon of road, saluting his 5-Star signs as we pass.
Having driven arrow straight Roman Roads all over Europe, it’s hard to imagine America a hundred years ago with barely a dirt track through the wilderness between towns. Interstate transport was all trains. The American Automobile Association was founded in 1902 calling for a great system of public highways. People were skeptical, since few could afford to spend weeks riding around in expensive horseless carriages. Undaunted, the AAA began publishing road maps in 1905. We’re carrying a handy box of modern AAA maps and tour books for the navigator.
The first successful transcontinental automobile trip was in 1903 by two men and their dog, Bud. Riding on an bet sparked in their San Francisco men’s club, Horatio Nelson Jackson and Sewall Crocker drove east in a Winton touring car, dubbed Vermont. Sixty-three days and $8,000 later, including the Winton purchase, they reached New York. Bud made the cover of The Auto Era, wearing his dust encrusted goggles. Their road trip inspired America to get out and get going. In 1909, the first woman, Alice Huyler Ramsey, drove a Maxwell touring car from New York to San Francisco in 59 days. In 1916, suffragists Nell Richardson and Alice Burke, and their cat Saxon, drove across and around America for five months and 10,000 miles advocating voting rights for women. Their yellow Saxon auto, known as the Golden Flier, became a powerful symbol and mobile podium for women’s rights. In 1928, Boy Scouts placed thousands of markers along the route dedicated to Abraham Lincoln. In 1931, Amelia Earhart flew the Lincoln Highway for her Beech-Nut Transcontinental Autogiro Tour, taking 10 days from Newark, New Jersey to Oakland, California, and 16 days back to Newark.
The Lincoln Highway Association was formed in 1912 by automobile entrepreneur Carl Fisher. He rallied his industry friends to build a coast to coast rock highway to be completed in time for the 1915 Panama Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco. Headquartered in Detroit, their Trail Blazer Tour set out in 1913 to scout the best route from New York City to San Francisco. Fueled by contributions from former President Theodore Roosevelt and Thomas Edison, both friends of Henry Ford (who refused to support non-government funded road projects), President Woodrow Wilson joined the project. Wilson was the first U.S. President to make frequent use of an automobile and his $5 pledge earned him Lincoln Highway Certificate #1. All along the route, people began to wake up to the possibilities of automotive progress and pleaded to be included on the new highway route. After a month of mud, sand, floods, overheated radiators, and cracked axles, the Trail Blazer Tour’s 17 cars and two trucks paraded down San Francisco’s Market Street for applauding crowds. The Lincoln Highway Trail Blazers returned to Indianapolis by train.
The announced road included eastern Turnpikes, British military trails, ancient Indian footpaths, pioneer and stagecoach routes, and the Pony Express trail. We’re driving through history and back in time!
The 1916 Lincoln Highway Association Official Road Guide cheerfully described a transcontinental road trip as something of a sporting proposition. It optimistically allowed 30 days of daylight required driving, averaging 18 miles an hour for 6 hours per day. Estimated budget was $5 a day per person for food, gas, oil, and hotel meals. Car repairs were too unpredictable to be included. Motorists were urged to top off their gasoline tanks at every opportunity since gas stations were rare, wade ahead in water before risking the car, and carry a block and tackle, chains, shovel, axe, jacks, tire casings and inner tubes, and a pair of pennants. The guide advised against wearing new shoes. Firearms were probably not required, but full camping gear was west of Omaha. Sagebrush signal fires would alert nearby ranches to bring horses for a tow.
We were an hour west of Omaha and refreshed from camping in a dog friendly plushy motel. Fueled on waffles with our tanks topped off, we set out to look for pennants along the way.
May 31, 2008
May 11, 2008
Merlin meets his Grandmum in Michigan.
We take a break for a few days to revisit the landscape of my childhood and restock for the return drive to California. Every journey has departures, moments of surprise, and hopefully, grace. How we greet the present informs the future, and the past.
Apr 29, 2008
Merlin enjoys the perfect Merlin-sized labyrinth at the new Riverfront Park across from Detriot's Belle Isle. This nine foot wide, seven path Classical Cretan is one of three in the International park created by our good pals, master Artistic Paver Marty Kermeen in collaboration with British master Labyrintharian Jeff Saward.
Apr 25, 2008
Our all time favorite labyrinth creator is Marty Kermeen. His amazing hand crafted brick paver designs are a delight to behold, infused with sophisticated workmanship, tradition and innovation. Marty is in great demand and lately he's been collaborating with another labyrinth pal of Merlin’s, Jeff Saward. They have several new installations I hope to visit near Chicago. The first is the historic Homestead Bed and Breakfast in Plano. The new labyrinth surrounded by a yew hedge maze creates an enchanting focus in the estate's outdoor sculpture gallery. Merlin especially enjoys exploring the living puzzle maze, sniffing his way along the paths.
We lunch with Debi Kermeen and walk a few peaceful labyrinths and landscapes near her home. The next morning, she takes us to the Illinois Math and Science Academy Labyrinth in Aurora. Marty said on the phone, (he’s away creating a new labyrinth in Wisconsin), that IMSA is his most exciting contemporary installation. Again in collaboration with Jeff Saward, Marty has devised a multi-layered design which incorporates the Fibonacci sequence and prime numbers in colored pavers of the labyrinth border. The center rewards walkers with a hand carved golden spiral, the Golden Ratio, the foundation mathematical constant aesthetically pleasing to mathematicians and architects. The Windy City earns it's reputation as Debi, Merlin, and I frolic amongst the splendid fusion of math, science, geometry, and art.
Day eight. Chicago Labyrinths. 48 Miles.
Mar 31, 2008
We woke to the sound of semi-trucks leaving. By 7 am the truck-stop parking lot was empty. By 7:30, housekeeping was working it's way down our hall. We had pulled into the truck-stop motel late last night, lured by a huge blinking sign declaring PETS WELCOME. I walk Merlin, pack the car, and venture into the truck-stop metropolis for breakfast. CNN blares from a dozen TVs suspended over tables throughout the restaurant. I order French toast with a bit a bacon for Merlin, trying to ignore the drawling bad news over my head. The southern California wild fires dominate the stories and I’ll be asked more than once if I’m driving away to escape them. At least gas was getting cheaper, as we drive east towards Washington, DC. The first morning stop is a labyrinth in North Platte. We find it sprawling behind the First United Methodist Church parking lot, a lovely smooth gravel and brick construction. Built in 2005 as an Eagle Scout Project, it’s over 80 feet across. I enjoyed it’s simplicity and clever use of interlocking bricks and solar powered garden lights.
A Lincoln Highway sign at the next rest stop announces that we are standing on the Oregon Trial and the Platt River Pony Express route. Nearby Gothenburg is apparently the Pony Express Capital of Nebraska so we have to investigate. We follow signs to a 1860 Pony Express Station, located in a lovely shaded park. Merlin enjoys sniffing around the old cabin, appreciating the antlers and buffalo coat, while I chat with the docent. My dad worked for the U.S. Post Office for over 30 years and I fondly remembered the Pony Express patches on his uniforms. We picnic in the park, appreciating our solid metal horse-wagon stocked with stores of bottled drinks and boxes of energy bars and kibble, grateful we’re not walking to Oregon.
Early settlers called the flat grassland prairie of the Nebraska Territory the Great American Desert and I can see why Nebraskans invented Arbor Day. The name Nebraska is an Oto Indian word for flat water, the Platte River. As we speed past dry corn fields towards Kearney, located exactly between San Francisco and Boston, I’m getting a bit anxious about our progress. Half way to Boston doesn’t feel far enough to Michigan. Nonetheless, I detour to the St. Francis Medical Center to visit a 60 foot rock garden labyrinth which I’d heard was quite impressive. It turns out to be a rather a long strip mall traffic jam from the freeway, and constructed of curious sharply pointed rocks. Being a hospital, Merlin isn’t allowed to wander the grounds so after a few snapshots, we drive away to find lunch. Over a chicken salad, I realize we had crossed another time zone, some time this morning. With another hour lost, we agree on an early night outside Lincoln. Merlin requests lodging next to King Kong Burgers. We settle in with fresh supplies, watching the twilight deepen out our big eastern picture window. When the sun sets over the prairie, the stars shine like no where else on Earth. We munch our dinner by candle light, watching a near full moon rise with diamond brilliant Uranus above the flat empty East.
Day Six: Nebraska. 322 miles.
Mar 28, 2008
The highway patrol waved everyone off Interstate 80. It had taken four hours to drive 100 miles across frozen Wyoming and we were ready to exit. The other side of the highway was already closed, littered with dozens of wrecked semi-trucks, trailers twisted, sheared, and scattered in the previous night’s wind. Our outside thermometer flicked between 29 and 34 degrees. The windshield spray froze, blocking the driver's view with slushy mud and crispy snow. We were the only non-truck, and put wipers on high panic whenever a semi roared past, spraying blinding slush for yards in all directions. I willed the temperature to rise. It refused. I used to love to drive in snowy Michigan as a teen. Winter driving in recent decades had been limited to sunny, dry roads between ski resorts in Lake Tahoe. Yesterday’s harrowing night drive through a pitch black, icy Flaming Gorge sat like a block of ice in my stomach. I began to consider turning around and limping home.
Hours passed in tense focus, seeking a safe track through frozen slush. We crept along, aiming for each other’s melted tracks, fighting glare ice patches and gusty winds. We watched trailers twist and glide in slow motion as they floated off the pavement and across the shoulder. We tried not to bump each other. The sun lit the brilliant landscape, dusted in gently flowing white. We crossed the Continental Divide, several times, and I would have stopped for a photo if I thought we wouldn’t get stranded, or crushed. A freeway plow glided along the other side of the deserted freeway, sending a cascade of powdery ice snow 20 feet into the air. We cheered.
At the exit all other ramps were blocked by barriers. A very serious sign announced, Interstate Closed When Flashing. It was flashing. Apparently, closing the Interstate was common enough to install permanent gates. I was astonished! It’s the Interstate, America’s freedom road. AAA never mentioned I-80 regularly closed for weather. You expect mountain roads to close in winter but this was the Lincoln Highway, the first intercontinental paved road in North America, a long straight friendly line of liberty on the map. I carefully slid to a stop in front of registration at the first motel. The lobby was warm and welcoming. A busy restaurant and steamy indoor pool beckoned through misty glass walls. I decided to check in and catch up on route planning and trip blogging, after a long soak in the spa. The busy receptionist flashed me an annoyed look, said there were 200 people already on the waiting list, and went back to answering phones. Devastated and unable to face the cold, I wandered aimlessly around the lobby, crowded with people and luggage. The only free seat was in a computer alcove, so I plopped down to figure out how to find another motel. I stared at the computer screen, trying to push aside hopelessness and exhaustion from the recent difficult drives, trying not to cry. A gentle man’s voice suggested I check road conditions. He assured me the crews would have the Interstate open soon. He sounded so reasonable. I relaxed in his company and began to think again. We chatted about our lives a bit and he thought Merlin's Road Trip was a grand idea. I wasn't so sure. He suggested I eat. So I joined a dozen truckers at a salad bar. We got our vehicles in line for eastbound I-80 as it opened. I inched back onto the white Interstate, refreshed and restored, and grateful for the kindness of strangers.
Back on the high plains the road was a thin, dry ribbon through the white landscape. We carefully parked at open rest stops. Merlin thoroughly enjoyed frolicking in the fresh powder. I enjoyed the hot air hand dryers in the restrooms.Recalculating a destination, we excused ourselves from reaching Lincoln and aimed for Cheyenne before dark. We reached the Cheyenne Botanic Gardens Labyrinth by late afternoon. A lovely setting any time of year, four flagstone benches host carved finger labyrinths, filled today with ice. The Peace Garden has dozens of inspirational quotes engraved in paving stones. I kicked stubborn frozen mud off the wheel rims, pouring water to melt the huge mass rubbing the tires. Merlin greeted a few other chilly dogs and had another lovely romp and roll in the snow. We had a winter picnic and drove east into dark Nebraska.
Day Five: Rock Springs, WY to Eastern Nebraska. 418 miles.
Feb 29, 2008
Waffles or kibble for breakfast…
There's a delightful new trend in motel breakfasts. Fresh pour-your-own-waffle makers are replacing the shrink wrapped danishes with expiration dates in the next decade. Merlin offered to clean my plate before I had a bite. We’d been sharing amaranth biscuits baked by wondrous cook husby, Marty. Merlin embraced the share all food road trip rules. Biscuits for both.
Apparently we awoke in Mountain Time. West Wendover, Nevada hopped into Utah’s time zone in 1999. The daylit terrain didn't have any color, but Merlin met some colorful show dogs staying at the motel during his early morning sniff. They were traveling to a competition in California and we knew they were professional dogs because the afghans had curlers in their hair!
We swing by historic Wendover Air Field, which in 1943, was the largest military reserve in the world and home of the Manhattan Engineers. Yes, those Manhattan Engineers who developed the atomic bomb and trained B-29 crews to drop it. The Enola Gay departed from Wendover Air Field in 1945 on its way to Hiroshima, Japan.
A few minutes from West Wendover, we enter Utah, a new U.S. state for Merlin, named after the Ute Indians. We’re here for the Bonneville Speed Flats, home to the world’s land speed records. It's our first big road trip destination. I had originally planned Wendover as the first night’s stop but Nevada expanded when we drove into it. We exit onto an asphalt road, following signs for the Speed Flats, Danger Cave State Park, Undeveloped, and the Barren Desert Silver Island Mountains on the edge of the Newfoundland Evaporation Basin of the Great Salt Lake. Growing up near Detroit, I have an inbred need for motor speed, and have long admired the mechanic drivers who create turbojet rocket powered land cruisers to break the sound barrier without exploding. We pull off onto salt, imagining Speed Week with the full desert effect. Merlin explodes from the car, racing around in the wild open salty sand dirt. He circles me, arcing out into an infinity figure eight with me at the cross center. I give chase and Merlin responds by attempting to set the four paw Aussie world land speed waffle powered record. With no competition in sight, I declare him the winner and rightful holder of the title.
Back on the Interstate, the official rest stop sports a concrete tower overlook of the Salt Lake desert. There’s a considerate foot wash faucet for salty sand walkers and an arbitrary spit rail enclosure plunked in the sand labeled Pet Area, which Merlin dubiously visits. We brush off salty sand and settle down for the long drive to Salt Lake City, across the Wendover Air Force Auxiliary Field, Dugway Proving Grounds, and Hill Air Force Range, all Restricted, No Travel. A distant train carries double stacked containers, giving it a shimmering crenelated look on the horizon, perhaps similar to what the Indians saw as the pioneer wagon trains pushed westward. Mournful roadside signs lean weathered and blasted blank. One rest stop sign erected bravely in the salt desert says Keep off Grass. Merlin hasn’t seen anything green since the casino lobby. Another sign greets us at the restrooms, telling us to watch for snakes and scorpions. We don’t stop long. The steady wind spits salty sand into our windows for another hour before we follow signs insisting we pull off and take a trucker brake at Skull Valley. Merlin closes his eyes against the biting salt and dirt. I begin to get a headache from the change in attitude, I mean altitude, as we drive across what’s left of the lake into Salt Lake City. The city raises in sunny terraces up the mountainside and Merlin hangs out the window watching the construction traffic. Since neither Merlin nor I would be admitted into the great Mormon temple for religious reasons, we drive on, leaving I-80 to turn south on US-40, climbing towards 7,000 feet and Park City, home of the Sundance Film Festival, and 2002 Winter Olympics. With Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon blasting, we join the parade of jeeps with roof racked snowboards and Foo Fighters blasting out of their speakers. The road funnels through mountain passes and we pause for a stretch sniff snack at the Heber City town square park. Banners proclaim the annual Cowboy Poetry Gathering and Buckaroo Fair. The Main Street movie theater is playing Becoming Jane.
The Uinta Mountains open up into beautiful 5,000 feet high plateaus. We practice high altitude breathing while walking on national forest nature trails and stop for a quick bake beside Starvation Reservoir. BringFido.com locates one of the few dog friendly hotels in this bit of Utah for us. It’s the kind of place that you're glad you brought your own shampoo and hand soap, but there’s plenty of hot water and serious water pressure. We drink lots of water and spread out the maps. I go to sleep dreaming of tomorrow's dinosaurs.
Day Three: West Wendover, Nevada to Vernal, Utah. 314 miles.
Feb 20, 2008
Merlin waited at the open motel door for the world to come back. He had explored the night before, unimpressed with dusty stone fence posts and a neighborhood of small houses with big yards of pavement. Merlin needed green. We had located the only tree in the neighborhood, a wide elm in a vast lawn. Merlin had promptly rolled around on his back in glee, stretching out stiff muscles. Wondering who maintained a thick watered lawn in this desert, I discovered we were guests of the county police department. We smiled at the imagined(?) security cameras and Merlin sat before crossing the street. He waited in the car at the motel while I nipped across the street to a casino restaurant. Tobacco smoke drifted in from the slots as I considered ordering breakfast, usually a safe choice on a foreign menu. Listed side orders included a stack of beef patties, double gravy, and triple fries. No steamed broccoli or tofu in sight. A tired waitress sat down at my table with two plastic cups of water. I asked for chicken tenders. She smiled as I told her the fries were for my dog. “Of course they are, honey. Sounds quite the adventure,” she said, wistfully. Merlin tugged at my awareness so I switched my order to take out. The waitress returned with a fistful of ketchup and sweet sauce packets and a small cup of milk for my morning tea. Ever patient Merlin herded me into our room, the promise of french fries in his nose.
I settled in to unpack and fuss with the new motel wi-fi. Apparently our motel was a favorite of university geologists, who insisted on high speed internet. The room seemed to be in the middle of it's own upgrade with torn curtains and light bulbs missing, but we were glad for a dog friendly place with a tea kettle. I can manage most anything after a strong cup of tea. Merlin watched from the second bed as I reorganized our luggage. He understands suitcases. He gets left behind when they appear, so he hops in and curls up, as if to suggest he is quite under the weight limit so is allowed to go to Europe with us. I’ve promised him I would only take him on an airplane if it were a private lear jet so he could sit with us and look out the window while enjoying in-flight biscuit snacks. Since I usually find myself in people cattle class, Merlin stays blissfully ignorant at home. Unless we’re on a road trip. Hence, his enthusiasm for road trips.
We repacked the car in the morning and headed for the lawn tree. Merlin greeted it with gusto, rolling in the grass with his paws punching the sky, as I waved to a patrolman sitting in his police car. The cop waved back and called, “Hey, little Aussie.” With gentle dog manners he asked permission to say hello and offered Merlin the back of his hand for a sniff. Merlin approved and accepted a friendly ear scratch. The patrolman remarked that Aussies are great dogs and I agreed. Most strangers mistake Merlin for a Border Collie or Bernese Mountain Dog, but here in the middle of Nevada is Basque country, and the epicenter of Australian Shepherd dogs. Aussies are actually an American breed, arriving with Basque sheepherders from the Pyrenees who had swung by Australia to collect sheep in the 1800s on their way to the California Gold Rush and open range of Nevada. The Australian Shepherds' strong herding instinct, keen intelligence, and graceful agility made them a favorite at western ranches and rodeos. The Basque are a fascinating people with an ancient language and complex culture. Some scholars consider them the direct descendants of the Paleolithic cave painters of the last Ice Age. Merlin’s Basque ancestry is a deep pulse in his magic.
We joined the I-80 road trains of truck convoys. Wal-Mart triple trailer trucks roared in both directions, feeding the pioneer, Mormon and survival enthusiasts their required two year supply of food and toilet paper. Sudden gusts made the trailers fishtail so we followed and passed with great care. Keeping our vow to stop at every rest area, we amused ourselves with signs insisting we restrain our livestock and pet area signs pointing to the wilderness. Merlin was not pleased with whatever had happened to the ground. He raised a paw pitifully with each step, waiting for me to brush off the crusty soil and sticky seed pods. He almost fell over trying to raise all his paws at once until he accepted the situation, peed where he stood, and quickly returned to the familiar comfiness of his padded back seat. The other parked vehicles towered over us, double rear wheeled pick-up trucks, covered with ranch work. By late morning, the road became emptier, littered with blank, weathered billboards and abandoned homesteads, charred chimneys raising from dry sagebrush. This was heavy metal rock music country with cowboy coffee and burned shells of cars every few miles as we approached Battle Mountain. The Washington Post had crowned Battle Mountain the official Armpit of America in 2001 and the town responded by convincing Old Spice Deodorant to sponsor an annual Pit Festival. Several billboards now declared Battle Mountain the Gateway to the Outback, and the town exit had three gas stations and six coffee shops vying for business with Moto X cycles and ATVs on their roofs. I looked around for X Games athletes but they were off practicing triple flips in private foam pits or base jumping off a skateboard into the Grand Canyon. Not wanting espresso and Red Bull for lunch, I chanced the gas station mini-mart. It was full of locals and I waited in line with a boxed salad as a big Indian filled his cooler with hot cheese stogies for his escape to a new life in Texas. The round woman cashier gave him all her oldest bills and they negotiated for a few minutes over two tattered fives until he bought a pack of gum and she had to give him change.
After a quick picnic in a windy dirt park, we returned to the road. Highway signs now warned of something called Dust Fog, for the next 75 miles. Services averaged 100 miles apart, conveniently spaced for drivers to fill up with gas and coffee. Occasional signs forbade us to pick up hitchhikers and I suspected some of the razor wire fenced mining operations were prisons. Wind and dust buff the car. The endless gray flatness is ringed with distant snow topped mountains. We could be driving through time in this timeless landscape. My finger throbs from a paper cut the night before and I think of one of my favorite science fiction authors, Tim Powers. In his book, The Anubis Gates, a modern man travels back to Coleridge’s London in 1810, gets a cut and realizes he’s more likely to die from lack of sanitation than anything else. I make a mental note to borrow Merlin’s antiseptic ointment from his doggie first aid kit and a band-aid from mine when we stop.
We exit back into the 21th century with the neon shock of Wendover casinos at the eastern edge of Nevada. Merlin sniffs the strip with great interest as we pass restaurants offering two-for-one all you can eat buffets. I explain the offer doesn’t apply to us because the small print says, Truckers’ Special. We check into a dog friendly Days Inn and I carry my map bag into a friendly, non-smoking restaurant. It’s a slow night and the cute young waiter, Wayne, pours out his dream to become a fashion designer in California. I look him in the eye over my third ice tea, no ice, and tell him yes, he can do that. He smiles, not needing my permission, but welcoming my confidence in him. I leave a huge tip.
Day Two, First Full Day, all Nevada. 306 miles.
Feb 8, 2008
We woke to overcast skies and an ominous cloud front lurking in the west. The Weather Channel promised rain. We packed quickly and drove towards Dry Fork Canyon, trusting a photocopied hand-drawn map from the motel lobby. Our destination- the Sadie McConkie Ranch Petroglyphs, one of the largest and most accessible collections of rock art in Utah. Dating back a thousand years, these petroglyphs are on private property with public access. The National Register of Historic Places lists this prehistoric site as Fremont Culture petroglyphs characterized by elaborately decorated anthropomorphic figures up to nine feet tall. It sounded astonishing. Well worth a Road Trip detour.
At the edge of town the road joined the river plateau. Drivers in mud spattered ranch trucks waved at us, appreciating Merlin sniffing the passing horses. A hand painted wooden sign led us to an antler fence parking lot. The doorless welcome hut requested a $2 donation for parking. Painted arrows indicated a trail considerately marked with surveyor ribbons. A young cat greeted me in the hut, meowing to be petted. Merlin waited outside. I signed the guestbook, dropped all my change in the donation can, and visited the pink outhouse. The kitten boldly scampered by Merlin and up the path. Merlin trotted under an enormous antler gate and climbed the trail to the 200 foot high sandstone cliff. Excited to be free, he ran around the red rocks and dry plants, yipping. Then he let lose a loud happy bark, which echoed back and forth along the canyon. Listening to himself, he decided that was great fun, and barked some more, exciting distant ranch dogs to join in. I calmed him out of respect for the ancient people who revered this place for 1,200 years. The kitten reappeared and perched on a rock while I scanned the cliff face. I could not see any rock art but took a photo of the entire cliff anyway, knowing sometimes faint designs show up afterwards with a little levels adjustment. I had memorized a few of the petroglyphs from the wall map in the hut and knew a panther was supposed to be somewhere right in front of me. The kitten meowed and purred as I absently stroked it’s head. Then suddenly the rock art panther leapt into focus, five feet long. Nearby was a faint face, a flowing circle, a small arrow. Once I saw the first subtle design, my brain recalibrated and petroglyphs began to appear everywhere. Always obsessed with prehistoric art since seeing photos of Lascaux as a little kid, I’ve visited Ice Age cave paintings in France, archeology museum collections in London, Paris, and Istanbul, Indian mounds in the American midwest, and rock art all over the Southwest. This was some of the best petroglyphs I’d seen anywhere.
The three of us happily scampered along on the rugged cliff bottom, the kitten leading, Merlin herding, me taking photos. After an hour we crossed a gully and came upon amazing tall figures with elaborate headdresses and beaded collars. Several groups gestured to each other, water drops falling from their eyes as if they were crying for, or bringing, rain. There were heads, feet, circles and spirals, proto-labyrinths, depicting spinning energy.
We returned to the car for drinks and snacks. I offered Merlin the dog food that had been sitting in his bowl since California. After our morning rock art romp, he was finally hungry. He nobly ate a few mouthfuls, then I tipped out his stale food for the gathered cats and poured him fresh kibble. He happily gobbled his new meal, sharing his water with the kittens. Perhaps he realized that he won’t have to live the rest of his life in the backseat of the car, so it was ok to eat. We stopped for a final photo as rain clouds gathered. Merlin found a lovely smelly rabbit carcass to roll in. This was turning out to be his best Road Trip day yet.
When I first started planning routes for Merlin’s Road Trip, I spotted Dinosaur National Monument straddling Utah and Colorado. I couldn’t believe I’d never been to Dinosaur National Monument! That decided it. We drive. A proper road trip invites adventurous detours and the American west is the place for detours for dinosaurs.
The Dinosaur National Monument website warns that driving distances to the Dinosaur Quarry Visitor Center are very long: 6 hours from Denver, 4 hours from Salt Lake City, 9 hours from Yellowstone, 5 hours from Moab, UT. But the spectacular geology, Indian Petroglyphs in rock shelters dating from AD 200-1300, and remains of early homesteading and outlaws made it seem worth the effort. Besides, I could nip back into Vernal and turn north through Flaming Gorge, another ‘I can’t believe I’ve never been to’ destination, to rejoin Interstate 80 in Wyoming.
The Dino NM website also states that pets are welcome at Dinosaur National Monument. However, they are apparently welcome only where cars are welcome, even if your pet is journalist Road Trip Merlin and you two are the only visitors in the parking lot built for 300 cars, 15 RVs, and 10 buses. Since Merlin couldn’t hike the trails with me and the Dinosaur Quarry Visitor Center with its 45 foot wall of 1,500 in situ bones closed in July 2006 (see what happens if you wait?), we purchased the 50¢ Auto Tour map and drove off. The paved road skimmed brilliantly colored rocks, from pale cream through flaming brick to hard black. Carved by the Green River, the canyon exposed 23 geologic formations, records of extinct ecosystems, the most complete fossil record in North America. The quarry is the world’s best window on the Late Jurassic dinosaurs from 150 million years ago. The Carnegie Museum has excavated bones and made casts for the world’s museums since 1909. I’ve meet several, including London’s Natural History Museum’s Diplodocus (double arm lizard), the longest land animal ever to live, and the four-story tall Brachiosaurus (arm lizard) in Chicago’s Field Museum. The Field Brachiosaurus is the largest mounted dinosaur in the world and now resides in Terminal One at O’Hare International Airport, relocated in 1999 to make room for Sue, the largest T-Rex ever found. The Allosaurus (other lizard) is the most commonly found Utah dinosaur and is the official State Fossil.
The auto tour was a dead-end, so after an hour we reluctantly made a u-turn and headed back for the park exit. A stiff, frigid wind brought rain and lightning. Aware that we were the tallest object in the valley, I parked by the slightly taller park entrance kiosk trying to unsuccessfully photograph lightning strikes from the dry safety of the car. An official sign told us to unload all our firearms. After following a slow gravel truck with a responsible sign stating it was not responsible for broken windshields, we returned to Vernal to look for lunch.
Day Four Morning: Vernal, McConkie Ranch Petroglyphs, Dinosaur National Monument, Vernal. Six hours, 57 miles.