The Meanderthals

The best and the worst of U.S. and Canadian road travel

We’ve learned a ton while putting in 13,853 miles traversing 35 US states and two Canadian provinces in 66 days. Details about human behavior, cultural nuances, geographic minutiae and simple observations filled the syllabus for our two-month-long lesson on the road. There was what we learned about other people and places, but it all paled compared to what we learned about ourselves.

Mostly, we remain struck by a deep sense of gratitude for the position we have found ourselves in: healthy, free, and able to head in just about any direction we chose.

For the rest of the world we saw:

For the most part, truckers are phenomenal drivers, and most stick to their lanes, signal, and keep the hammer down as they rocket across the country.

Courteous truck drivers outnumber the jerks 50-1, but the bizarre behavior by the occasional jackass can ruin a drive in an instant. We had our moments of being boxed in by inconsiderate 10-wheel jockeys, but they were few and far between.

The 75 mph speeding limit had to have been created for Oklahoma, a state made to get through as fast as humanly possible.

The best hotel-room coffee makers are offered by Sheraton, which offers Starbucks coffee brewed in a one-cup “Warm Blends” coffee maker. Sleep Inn and Suites comes in second, also with its one-cup-at-a-time model. No hotels leave enough non-dairy creamer in the cellophane packets; it’s just the way it is, and most hotels’ coffee’s are generally too bad to drink black.

The “six calendar” cafes popularized by William Least Heat Moon in “Blue Highways” seem to have disappeared from the US landscape. We sought them out in small towns, remembering how fondly Least Heat Moon recalled them as he spirited across the country in 1987, but they seem to have been sadly replaced by chain restaurants. Best bet for local fare and conversation was either breakfast joints, diners, bars and pubs.

Best joke heard on the road: “What has 80 balls and screws grandmothers? The Nebraska State Keno.” Told by Patty, an elderly barmaid/waitress at the Iron Horse Café in Hooper, Nebraska, where there was nary a calendar to be seen.

A good gps tracker is a good idea to help keep you on the right track. I can’t recall the number of times we were zooming along at 70 mph and Tinkerbell, as we affectionately call our British-accented Garmin, instructed us to take a left turn in the middle of the highway. She also developed an odd penchant for telling us to take a left and displaying a right, sending us north instead of south, and generally messing with our heads. We still love her, though, and are grateful for her 99.2% accuracy throughout our trip.

Best GPS misdirection of the trip: North off Route 30 in Wyoming to Helena, straight into a whiteout blizzard. The nearest exit was 20 minutes into the squall, which we endured with white-knuckled resilience before we found the turnaround and got back on the right road. Thank you, Garmin. Tinkerbell also notably sent us round in circles around Lake Powell, eventually dumping us in the parking lot of a local restaurant in Hanksville, Utah, where the restaurant staff sold t-shirts emblazoned “Where on earth is Hanksville?” because nearly all passersby’s GPSs took them past the eatery’s doors.

Best surprise of the trip: no question, western Arkansas, where the beautiful mountains, laid-back people and windy, well-maintained roads of Bill Clinton’s home turf shocked the hell out of us and made us want to stay. Close second was Palo Duro Canyon near Amarillo, Texas, which is beautiful, huge (second largest in US after you know what) and accessible. We’d never heard of it before Amarillo, and the canyon made an otherwise forgettable part of the trip more than memorable.

Best personal moment: How wonderful and charming Gabi and I found Columbus, Nebraska, which was the equidistant destination for us when she lived in San Francisco and I in Boston. Wonderful, quiet little town of tree-lined streets, parks and small town living. Not much of the high life, but it’s the home of Dorothy Lynch salad dressing. ‘Nuff said.

Best hike: Zion National Park, from a northern entry point through the Emerald Pools below. Incredible.

Best skies: Wyoming and Nebraska trump Montana, in my book.

Easiest place to live: Bainbridge Island, Wash. Simply gorgeous, and connected to Seattle by a stunning 35-minute ferry ride. Our friends Mike and Rhonda are moving there in June, the lucky souls. They’ve promised to keep the carriage house somewhat available for itinerant travelling friends.

Worst winds: Oklahoma. See above. Yuck.

Most tourists: Grand Canyon. It’s beautiful and incredibly huge, but like a supermodel, somewhat unapproachable.

Worst drivers: tie, between northern and southern Californians. I think NorCal drivers win, though, because you expect wacky behavior from the nutcases around LA. Bay Area drivers, though, apparently shed their laid-back skins, shelve their Phd’s and turn into aggressive, driving rule-defying morons when behind the wheel. They seem to have perfected the art of tailgating and changing lanes without signaling, particularly when they sense an out of state driver. Seems to me they all need to spend more time in wine country.

Best food for road-weary travelers: the west coast, home of great seafood, vegetarian options, and self-serve yogurt.

Worst food: the southeast, where restaurants would probably sell fried lard if they could figure a way to prepare it. Vegetables are brutalized by deep fat frying, catfish is ubiquitous and greasy, and where the US obesity crisis is illustrated on every street corner in every town.

Best wines: Sorry, California, but I’m voting for Washington State. The bottle of red that my buddy Shep uncorked in Yakima was as good as anything I’ve tasted anywhere. Simply incredible. You go, Walla Walla.

Most outrageous place for lunch: Hoss’s Saloon somewhere in Virginia, where the large-busted, short-skirted waitresses attract crowds and actually sell good food at reasonable prices. Bikers are known to find the best places for lunch, you know.

Weirdest local event promoted roadside: The annual Testicle Festival in Clinton, Montana, where a few thousand revelers gather each year to drink heavily, eat Rocky Mountain Oysters, and get naked. Fun for the entire family.

Best splurge restaurant that defied our daily food budget: tie between Saltus Grill in Beaufort, SC, and The Four Swallows in Bainbridge Island, WA. Both located very near the water. Coincidence? Saltus might edge out TFS on the merits of its inventive pecan pie, which arrived perched on a bed of thinly-sliced candied ginger. Incredible. Then again, the blackberry slump at TFS was damned amazing in its own right.

Best bridge: Hard to top the Golden Gate, but the Chesapeake Bridge and tunnel, a 14-mile stretch of engineering feat that crosses the open waters of the Chesapeake Bay is simply astonishing.

Most significant moment: Las Vegas, not because of the lights and madness, but because of the events that unfolded and informed us in ways we continue to learn from. Details are all on the blog, but Leaving Las Vegas meant a helluva lot more to us than hitting the road with an empty wallet and vague memories of midnight debauchery.

Most amusing road sign: Hmmm..there were tons, but we think the “Pansy Kidd High School” sign in Poteau, OK tops ‘em all. The sign near the penitentiary in East Carroll, LA warning motorists not to pick up hitchhikers was a close second.

Kindest moment: The woman at the La Kris Motel in Bandon Oregon, who, after speaking with Gabi on the phone about our reservation, thoughtfully printed out a series of photos of London and gave it to her when we checked in an hour later, thinking she might be homesick as she travelled up the coast…

Weirdest moment: When the waitress at the chain restaurant in Greenville, Miss. informed us that the motel we’d checked into was a known hangout for drug dealers and prostitutes. Check, please!

Most beautiful coffee shop: Kiva Koffee House, between Torrey, Utah and Bryce Canyon. Native timbered beams and south-facing floor-to-ceiling windows that overlooked the sandstone hills provided an insanely stunning backdrop for a good cup of joe and fluffy muffins. More than just a building, it was the labor of love of artist/entrepreneur/engineer Bradshaw Bowman, who built the structure to his specifications and ran the coffee shop and accompanying tiny inn (two rooms) until he died on Christmas Eve 2000.

Best lunch vista: Nepenthe in Big Sur. Hard to describe or recreate the stunning vista for this Big Sur ever-popular dining destination.

Biggest weather surprise. There were a few, but the snow on the ground before breakfast in Kosciusko, Miss., has to top ‘em all. Close second: the blizzard in late April which closed most of Yellowstone National Park, though the locals told us such weather was hardly unexpected.

Best hotel deal for our budget: Oceanfront suite in Seafoam Lodge near Mendocino which, for $77, gave us views of the Pacific and warm muffins delivered to our door for breakfast. Close second: the oceanfront suite in Kill Devil Hills, NC, overlooking the Atlantic. Sure was nice to have both coasts covered.

Biggest bubba moment: the clown in eastern Nebraska whose big-wheeled, raised-bed Ford Explorer was appropriately fitted out with the following heartfelt sign on its rear window: “Be a flirt. Lift your shirt,” inspiring both us and the two girls from NY in the car next to us to whip out not our breasts but our cameras to take a picture of the dumbass’s artwork.

Most honest answer from a waiter: Matthew at Dusters in Columbus, Neb, who, when we asked where the North Atlantic lobster tail on the menu came from, answered candidly: “Sysco.”

Best sign by a homeless: Fight hobophobia”, in Ottawa.

Most creative (bizarre) hotel/destination/fantasyland: Madonna Inn, in San Luis Obispo, CA, with a close second by the Adventure Suites in North Conway, NH. We didn’t stay at the Madonna, but we enjoyed our night in the Deserted Island room at Adventure Suites, which came complete with a one-of-a-kind clamshell bed that opened and closed by an electric motor. Gotta check ‘em out.

Best wildlife sightings: Bison, wolves, elk and deer in Yellowstone National Park. Close (and I mean, very close) second: Moose on the side of the road in Lost River, NH, and just a couple hours later a mother black bear and three very tiny cubs running alongside the road in North Conway, NH. Next day gave us an extremely close encounter with a cute but way too curious red fox, who looked as though he was prepared to join us in the car. Incredible. The lynx in a glass-enclosed cage in the Musky Widows restaurant on Manitoulin Island was too dead and stuffed to qualify, but it sure shocked the hell out us as we worked our way through the cream of broccoli soup.

Strangest roadside sighting: the backlit chain gang trudging through the dusty sunset in rural Mississippi. Shades of Cool Hand Luke.

Coolest unspoiled town: Cambria, CA. Quaint, chill, hip, artistic, very friendly.

Most colorful character: Rooster (real name, Curtis Wheeler), legendary bluesman on Bourbon Street in Nawlins.

Most baffling dining moments: In U.P. Chuck’s in the Upper Peninsula, Michigan, where the menu displayed a grilled ham and cheese sandwich but the waitress initially declined Gabi’s request for a grilled cheese. The explanation: “We don’t have any bread.” Once we explained the details of reverse engineering the ham out of the mix lunch proceeded accordingly. At Ernie’s Restaurant in Crysler, Ontario, the waiter appeared apologetically with one poached egg instead of two, and explained to Gabi: “The cook’s having a bad day. Your other egg will be along in a minute.”

Most inspired engineering feat: the Miracle Staircase in the Loretto Chapel in Santa Fe, NM, where the nuns’ prayers for a staircase to the second floor choir loft were answered by a strange carpenter who built the thing with no visible means of external support., nails or dowels. Once the structure was completed the stranger disappeared, giving birth to rumors of divine intervention.

So, there you have it.

We’ve seen plenty, crossed lots of borders and had so many experiences along the way that we can only mention a few.

Thanks for sharing our ride!

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