The Garage Diaries: Part 2
Crossing the Desert Southwest (And Searching for Some Small-Batch Along the Way)
The continuing observations of a person who might have formerly been labeled a “redneck.”
This is satire. Or maybe it’s not. You can draw your own conclusions. And the author (the actual author, not the man portrayed) — solely based on the fact that he was born and raised in the “South” — can be labeled a bona-fide “redneck” himself, so don’t get worked up about his use of the word. Note: The author didn’t vote for Clinton OR Trump.
Well, I’m back. Last time we spoke, I was talkin’ about how surprised I was that Trump got elected, and how I pretty much believe that regardless of who you voted for, we aren’t all that different in this country; we just got different ways and beliefs on how we get to that ultimate conclusion; we all live in this country and we all cherish our kids’ future and want the best for them. I think President Kennedy said somethin’ similar. At least that’s what they told me in school anyway. (Hope that wasn’t “fake news.” Ha ha.) I mean honestly, you never know about some of the the things they taught us in “school.” Check out Paul Johnson’s A History of the American People if you’re wonderin’.
Anyway, I left off by sayin’ that no matter who you are or who you voted for, if you find yourself in my neighborhood and you come on up to my garage, I’ll give you a cold one. Or even some Jim Beam. Like I said, I got plenty of both. We can discuss all this stuff. Or we can just drink. I said I was just throwin’ that out there for everybody. And I say it again right now. I’m throwin’ that out there to you.
The Garage Diaries
Observations of a person who might have formerly been labeled a “redneck,” who lives up in Pennsylvania. (Yeah that’s…
The only thing is, since we last talked, a good friend of mine turned me on to something called small-batch bourbon. I don’t really know what “small batch” means, but the stuff is real damn good. Much better than regular Jim Beam. Stuff’s called Buffalo Trace. But it’s hard to find. So sometimes I get Bulleit, Knob Creek, or this other brand called Henry McKenna. Only thing is, this “small batch” stuff is a whole helluva lot more expensive than Jim Beam is. And you gotta pick your battles with it. I mean, I don’t have 30 or 40 bucks to throw down on a 750 ml bottle of booze, no matter how good it is. But if you’re patient, you can find it on sale sometimes. Or even better, you stumble on some poor whippersnappers selling it for way below what it’s really worth because they just didn’t get the word yet how good the stuff is and how high the demand for it is. You find somebody like that, you gotta resist the urge to clean them out on the spot. Cause if you clean ‘em out, they get wise that instant and jack the price way up. I seen it happen. No, you buy a couple bottles tops so they keep the price low.
I mean, I been to a few places that had it for 20 bucks, then when the word got out and people started clearing them out, they wised up and hiked it all the way up to twice that amount. Now, they either never have it or when they do, it’s too expensive! The key is finding those places with the low price before they get wise.
But I digress.
So I had to drive somewhat across country a few weeks back for somethin’. Don’t really want to give you all the details of why, but I had to drive out to California from a southern state that— like they used to say in them Harry Potter movies — has to stay unnamed. (You know, that Boldamort guy or whatever the hell his name was). It was essentially I-40 west the whole entire way, until I got to California and had to get on some other roads toward good old SoCal.
Now I’ve driven I-40 through the eastern part of the country before, and it ain’t too bad over there. I mean it’s downright pretty when you get east of Knoxville, Tennessee, and you drop on down into the foothills of the Great Smoky Mountains, coming on over to Asheville, one of my favorite-ever places. That stretch of road between Knoxville and Asheville, if you never done it, you need to, just for the experience. Do it in the fall or the early spring; it’ll blow your mind. Kinda curvy in some sections and a few tunnels on an interstate (which is rare), because it’s all through those beautiful mountains. You’ll get a few troopers sittin’ around tryin’ to make their quota and such. So be watchful if you do it. But it’s an area where the Smokies, the Appalachians, and the Blue Ridge all sorta meet up, and the views are incredible.
You get east of Asheville, it gets flat and kinda boring until you get over near the coast and you terminate the whole road into Wilmington, North Carolina, another delightful little town. Gotta a lotta history over there. You need to check that town out too; the Cape Fear River and the beaches up and down the coast. Awesome stuff.
But as for I-40 west, once you get outta the pretty Arkansas Ozarks, it is downright murderous. Ain’t got nothin’ against Oklahoma, but the road through that state is just mind-numbin’. You go through Oklahoma City and head on west over into the Texas panhandle, which you wouldn’t even know you’re in if you didn’t see the sign announcin’ it. In fact, you think you’re never gonna get there. But then you hit Amarillo.
George Straight has this song, “Amarillo By Mornin’,” which was a big hit for him back in the early 80's when he first got famous, but I have no idea why the guy in that song was tryin’ so damn hard to get to Amarillo by mornin’. I guess his girl was there or somethin’, because there literally ain’t no other reason for anybody to be tryin’ to get to Amarillo by mornin’ or any other time of day for that matter. Wait a minute. My wife is yellin’ over here to say the guy was a rodeo cowboy and he was tryin’ to get to his next competiton. Okay, whatever. That don’t change my views at all.
But anyway, nothin’ against Amarillo. It’s just in the middle of nowhere on the plains of Texas, and you wonder why anybody would want to “get” or live there. Or how it even became a town in the first place. Maybe it was cattle in the beginnin’ and then they struck oil or somethin’. No offense to y’all Amarilloans. Folks probably say the same thing about where I live, and they’re entitled to their opinion, right? Cause this is America. (That’s sorta my whole entire theme in this little literary endeauvour). I mean, I been to some towns people say are awesome, and then I’m let down by how bland they actually are. Overrated. But then I seen other towns I never heard of, and I think I stumbled on to some hidden or overlooked gem nobody knows about. Which kinda brings me, at last, to my point: A lot of them towns are out west, and they ain’t in all the magazines and whatnot.
Anyhow, you leave Texas and pass on into New Mexico. Now, I personally think New Mexico is a very underrated state. You almost never hear about it in the news, and if you do, it’s usually somethin’ about Santa Fe, where a buncha pretty people hang out. They got a nice ski resort in Taos up there too. But that’s about the only two places you ever hear anything about in New Mexico. And I think that’s a shame.
Because the drive and the scenery get more interesting in New Mexico. The towns have these funky names, like Tucumcari, Truth or Consequences, and Gallup — like a horse gallups, get it? (Okay, I ain’t stupid; I know a horse gallops; I just think the town founders got one letter wrong is all). You start gettin’ closer to Albuquerque and you get into some other mountains over there that are real pretty, called the Sandias. Beautiful. And totally different from the Smokies and Appalachians. You should spend a few days in Albuqueque; it’s a pretty nice city.
And then you head out of Albuquerque and over to the aforementioned Gallup and then you cross into Arizona. And it gets pretty desolate. I mean, dark sidea the moon desolate. And then that desolation gets downright strange. You get to this place called Petrified Forest National Park. It ain’t really a forest at all; in fact you probably won’t see a tree for hundreds of miles in either direction. You start wondering where this big national park forest is — you know, like the forests at Yellowstone or Yosemite — and then it strikes you: They call it PETRIFIED. FOREST. “Okay,” you snicker at yourself, “I get it.” The wood’s petrified.
No, it aint no real forest. What it is more like is some ancient, primordial flood plain where a buncha huge trees got washed up in some tremendous flood. (Sound familiar to anybody?) You got all these huge pieces of what are clearly tree trunks, split up like some giant race of lumberjacks sawed them into pieces, and then over time turned into petrified wood. Which means rock. It’s hard to describe. You’ll have to see it for yourself. The sight of ancient trees, now turned into essentially boulders, sitting all over a rocky desert in the middle of Arizona is one of the damndest things I’ve ever laid eyes on. You just wonder what in the hell happened and what they’re doin’ there. Cause there ain’t no river anywhere nearby, nor any evidence of one. Maybe it had somethin’ to do with that big flood, because I got no idea how else such big-ass trees — not native to the area — could get into the middle of a desert that’s clearly been a desert forever. I mean, with things like this I heard all kinds of theories from people in “school,” even college professors and the like, but a lotta their theories just struck me as plain nonsensical. (But then again, I’m just a redneck, not a scientist).
You pull away from that craziness, and after a few more miles you get to this really neat little town called Holbrook, where if you pull off the 40 for a look, somethin’ hits you, especially if you have kids and they watched the Disney movie Cars; this is the town with those crazy little motel rooms that resemble a teepee.
Continuin’ on west, you come to another familiar place, Winslow. If you never been through these parts, you wonder why it’s familiar for a minute, and then it hits you; “Winslow, Arizona.” This is where the late, great Glenn Frey sang about standin’ on the corner when a pretty young girl drivin’ a flatbed Ford slowed down to give him the look. (Okay, I know he didn’t say “pretty” in the song, but I’m pretty sure that was a given, ya know?)
You get through there, stop at The Corner and have a look. It’s pretty cool. Take a picture with the statue. And before you leave Winslow, make sure you hit the Sonic for a large Diet Vanilla Cherry Coke, cause that’s the last Sonic you’re gonna see goin’ west.
So about when you’ve resigned yourself to the conclusion that the entire state of Arizona must be what you always thought it was — desert, boulders and rattlesnakes and what not, you start noticin’ you’re climbing into some hills, or maybe mountains. And all of sudden you’re seein’ these huge beautiful trees, evergreens and the like; the kind they have up in Colorado and Lake Tahoe and all that. They’re called Ponderosa pines. And what you’re drivin’ through is the Cococino National Forest.
Flagstaff, which hits you outta nowhere, nestled up near the San Francisco Peaks, is one of the most underrated college and ski towns in the country. The skiing is up at the Arizona Snow Bowl (that’s right; there’s snow in Arizona y’all), and the place is sorta underground compared to the better-known pretty-people hangout over at Taos. (The locals in Flagstaff will probably get mad at me now for outting their secret.) Talk about a hidden gem.
After you leave Flagstaff, you come on down outta those gorgeous mountains and it gets flat again. Then just before you reach California, you hit another interesting little town, a place called Kingman. Kingman has a history. It has been the scene of several movies. It’s also the town where Timothy McVeigh lived right before he committed the Oklahoma City bombing, and from what I’ve seen and experienced there, I think the town has been given a bum rap because of that; every time I been through there the people and the town are very nice to me. It’s a good place to stop for the night, whichever direction you’re headed.
Then you go into this strange area, a land that time seems to have forgot, leading into the crossing of the Colorado River into California, where that huge feeling of timeless isolation continues. It’s that same desert-desolation I mentioned before, but even stranger for some reason. It continues on, skirting the southern edge of the Mojave National Preserve, past which the weird isolation begins to resolve, and finally you come into Barstow, which can be described as nothing more than an outpost. And then 40 just ends, and you take 15 south. Civilization writ large begins to come upon you as you drive through Victorville, the San Bernardino Mountains, Temecula, Escondido, and finally, into America’s Finest City, San Diego.
And the hinterlands all along this interstate have this cool feel because it was laid down over none other than the legendary Route 66. Some pieces of it still exist, but you have to keep an eye out for them. If you get the chance, take a little detour down some of those stretches of road; you won’t be disappointed.
Which leads me to the other undercurrent to my story, about how and where to look for small batch when you find yourself on the road out west. Unlike most of the country, the towns are scarce west of Oklahoma City and east of LA, so you got to be surgical and on the lookout, lest you find yourself stopping over some late, dark, desert night in some hotel off some nameless exit, where the only retail establishment is a gas station. No my friend, when you are in that situation and you need what James Bond called a “nightcap” (or several) — especially during baseball season and your favorite team is on the TV that night — the Bud or Busch Light in the gas station cooler just won’t do (no offense to the partakers of those brands); you better have the good stuff stocked and supplied by the time you stop.
Now bein’ a veteran and all, I sorta have it better than your regular citizen when it comes to this subject; I get to go on military bases and frequent the PX and what they call the Class Six or the package store. And I’m happy to report to y’all that Tinker Air Force Base in Oklahoma City and Kirtland Air Force Base in Albuquerque can hook up the initiated. The word ain’t out in those two places just yet. Arizona don’t afford such an opportunity, at least along the I-40 corridor, but that ain’t their fault; there just ain’t any bases on that route.
But the best surprise awaited me in the place I least expected it: Barstow, California, in the middle of the Mojave Desert and at the end of the 40. None of the previous bases or other places had it, but I finally struck gold at the Marine Corps logistics base there, where I located none other than my cherished Buffalo Trace for a few cents north of an Andrew Jackson (soon to be Harriet Tubman). Seein’ as Barstow is a tiny map dot and not a place I have been through that much, I went ahead and violated my rule and cleaned them out. I’m now set until next Thanksgiving, I think.
And how fittin’ is all that? Crossin’ the great American southwest on a mission, tryin’ to find your favorite small batch (made in Kentucky), findin’ it on a military base of all places, and payin’ for it with a currency that has heretofore depicted a legendary, but controversial President and which will soon depict one of the heroes of the abolitionist movement and the Underground Railroad?
I gotta tell you, you can’t get any more American than that.