Bruce Bentzman offers the latest piece in his series:

From the Night Factory

39. Seven Thousand Miles

Since my retirement  in 2011, Ms Keogh, my more significant other, and I have made two trips driving across the country, for no better reason than to see it. This year we made a third trip, to attend our niece’s wedding in Spokane, Washington. We left on the 30th of August at seven forty in the evening. The odometer of our 2012 Acura TSX read 58,275 miles. We arrived back on the 13th of September at four o’clock in the morning with 65,247 miles on the odometer.

Novelties overwhelm the senses. The journey was more than my brain could store, with so many new experiences that the two weeks of our adventure felt more like a month of memories.

I can’t write about the whole trip. Some of the individual experiences merit entire essays devoted just to them. I will write about half the journey, the going west, even then restricting myself just to the highlights, and to sights caught as we zoomed along the interstates. I remember the Gateway Arch, so distinct that I can recall no other building in the St Louis skyline. Yet after we crossed the Mississippi River at St Louis, followed almost immediately by crossing the Missouri River, we caught a glimpse of a field enclosed on three sides by trees and flooded with giant sunflowers. They were all of them facing us! Of course they were facing the interstate and the sun beyond, but their eerie beauty seemed an alien force of cheery faces about to mob the highway. Although we got past them before they advanced onto the asphalt, I was infected by the joy and silliness of their appearance. As I bring up the memory now, I am again infected. I think about those sunflowers more often than I think about the Gateway Arch.

Novelty accounts for the vision of a city for elves. We were between Cheyenne, Wyoming and Salt Lake City, Utah heading west. The small city of lights appeared in the black ocean of night, a Christmasy city built of white light bulbs, but no other colors. It would have been blinding for the residents. As we came closer, it became apparent that it was an oil refinery. I had never before seen one with so many lights, although we would see others later. Still, it was only this first sighting that was meaningful for its fantastical appearance, all those lights surrounded by void. We got off at the exit to refuel at a Sinclair gas station adjacent to the interstate, the narrow road continuing past the station to the refinery, an inviting white Oz.

Sinclair gas! I didn’t know Sinclair, with Dino its iconic logo, a green Apatosaurus – a Brontosaurus when I was a kid – still existed. I thought they had gone extinct; that is, I thought Sinclair gas stations were no more because you can no longer find them where we live.

Between St Louis, Missouri and Cheyenne, Wyoming, we paused in Boulder, Colorado for lunch. For a brief but significant moment in my life, I once lived in Boulder. Because of the stories I told, Ms Keogh insisted on seeing it. The Boulder I knew had nearly vanished. On top of the old map they had grafted an upscale mall of shops and eateries. The flophouse I stayed in briefly, once a hotel that hosted Ulysses S. Grant, had disappeared. The red brick house where I rented a room was now a law office. We strolled to the corner and there I found my old watering hole, Tom’s Tavern – hooray! Ms Keogh said this is where we would lunch. But what was this, a plaque on the sidewalk honoring Tom! My bartender had become a pillar of the community, “an influential member of the Boulder City Council … served as Deputy Mayor for three years….” He had a last name! He was Tom Eldridge. The plaque finished, “Eldridge still finds time every day to flip burgers at Tom’s.” The words “Tom’s Tavern” on the side of the building appeared freshly painted. But it wasn’t Tom's Tavern beyond those painted bricks.

Over the front door was the new name, Salt. And Tom, I would later learn, died in 2007 of brain cancer. Salt was closed during the afternoon. We went to lunch at Riffs, where I enjoyed one of the best burgers ever. This was a different Boulder, a yuppie town, a utopian conglomeration of the aesthetics brought there by Manhattanites and San Franciscans. “I could live here,” Ms Keogh announced. I craved something more traditional and shabby.

It was three o’clock in the morning when we came out of the mountains into Salt Lake City, Utah. We were the only car on the interstate, until another car swiftly pulled up behind me and rode my tail. The police! I double-checked my speed and determined I was legal. I drove in the middle lane because I didn’t know which side of the highway I would have to exit to enter the downtown area of the city. The police car came around to my side. The officer’s stern visage stared at me. I smiled. He pulled back and was riding too close again. Then he came around to the passenger side. Ms Keogh waved. He again pulled back to threaten the rear bumper. I was uncomfortable with him so close, I thought to get out of his way or at least slow us both down before he parked in my trunk. I signaled and changed lanes. That is when the colored lights came on. I was being stopped.

I drove a short distance to where the shoulder was wide. I did not want the police officer to get hurt. He came over to my window, a young fellow, handsome too. He seemed fit, as if he worked out. He was polite. He asked for the usual, driver’s license, registration, and proof of insurance. “Do you know why I pulled you over?” he asked. I didn’t. “We have a law in this State; when you put your turn signal on to change lanes, you have to wait two seconds before doing it.” He asked me to accompany him to his patrol car.

This is something I never heard of, getting out of my car to go sit in his. So strange, I confessed it was scary. What was he planning to do with me? He explained this was the normal practice in Utah and assured me it was nothing to worry about. He also told me upfront that he wasn’t giving me a ticket, just a verbal warning.

I sat in the front passenger seat of his patrol car, nowhere near as clean as my vehicle. I answered all his questions about where we were from and where we were going. There was a monitor between us, facing him, and I suppose he was verifying information to be sure we were who we said we were and likely doing what we claimed to be doing. He was polite and trying to be reassuring. We were interrupted by his radio, a rookie seeking advice, not knowing what to do with a stolen car he found.

He asked if we were planning to stay in Salt Lake City and I replied, “Not anymore.” I told him his stopping us was a bad omen. And while we waited, I guess for information to flow in to him from that monitor, I asked him about himself, learning about his childhood, his parents, how it was he came to Salt Lake City, since he was born in another State. When we were both satisfied with the information we had, I told him we would still be wanting coffee before we left. Turns out Salt Lake City pretty much closes down at night. The only place he could think of to get coffee was an all-night Denny’s. Other than that, he and his colleagues usually went to the hospital to get their coffee at night. His father worked at the hospital.

We had coffee and breakfast at the Denny’s. We next drove around the Mormon Temple, a fairytale castle enclosed behind a wall that with its compound of associated buildings dominates the downtown. It lurked in an uninviting manner. The air about the city had an unpleasant odor. We found ourselves in a hurry to leave, north to Idaho. It felt like an escape. Leaving the city, we passed multiple refineries. Perhaps they were the source of the foul odor. Once we were across the border in Idaho, we pulled into a roadside rest stop and slept in the car.

In Idaho, when I told locals how much better we liked it than Utah and the story about being pulled over by the police, the frequent response was, “oh, you were just driving without being Mormon.”

Ms Keogh and I fell in love with Idaho, but  Lewiston (adjacent to Clarkston, the two towns named for explorers Lewis and Clark) was a funny place where every chain store in the nation seemed to be represented. The most disappointing part of our journey was the repetitious malls, the same stores over and over again. Travel used to be a pilgrimage to sources for items you could not procure at home.

Spokane was our destination. Our niece’s wedding was wonderful, the bride beautiful, the groom good-looking, and the band – whoa, the band – they were rocking. But we decided to not make Spokane the end of our trip west. After the wedding, we drove on.

We arrived to Bill’s house on the 7th of September. A gracious host, he poured me a glass of Bushmills Black Bush and himself a glass of wine. He said it was the same bottle of Bushmills that he had opened during my last visit two years previously and no one had touched it since. I don’t know why. The back porch of his house looked out across Discovery Bay. His small backyard ends in a precipitous drop of eighty feet onto a rocky beach of the bay. In the distance, the Olympic Mountains formed a ragged silhouette. As we talked and sipped our drinks, the sun set between Diamond Point and Protection Island into the Strait of Juan de Fuca. Out there, beyond the horizon, rippled and rolled the Pacific Ocean. Bill’s porch was the furthest west we would travel this trip.

The next day, we breakfasted at the tiny Blue Moose Café in the shipyard at Port Townsend. Good food, wonderful people. From there we said our farewells and commenced our journey east.

There was a pause in Seattle, where I was connived into reading my poetry aloud at an open mike in the back room of the Wedgwood Ale House, but that and the return trip would take another essay that I am determined not to write.

Mr Bentzman will continue to report here regularly about the events and concerns of his life. If you've any comments or suggestions, he would be pleased to hear from you. 

Selected Suburban Soliloquies, the best of Mr Bentzman's earlier series of Snakeskin essays, is available as a book or as an ebook, from Amazon and elsewhere.