American Southwest Bro-Trip, Part 7: Truck Trouble and The Final Drive

Morning in Page at the Red Rock Inn.

We rose at 5:30 A.M. Page time since we finally learned which time zone we were in: Mountain Standard, which meant we would lose two hours driving east over the next two days (one hour entering Mountain Daylight, and another entering Central). We both slept unbelievably well that night after four nights on the ground in the cold inside sleeping bags—but those four nights on the ground made sleep in a bed that much sweeter. You learn to appreciate the things you take for granted in life when you go camping, and that’s one reason I like doing it.

We loaded up Vader and, since the motel office wasn’t open yet, left the keys on the table as our hosts instructed us. We drove around the block to grab a Southwestern breakfast at Ranch House Grille. I enjoyed an omelet while Daniel had huevos rancheros. We talked about what we wanted to do that day on the way back, and decided that we would have to forego a tour of Antelope Canyon for time constraints. Instead, we would stop at Horseshoe Bend on our way out of town, and then play the rest of the day by ear with the goal of reaching Albuquerque before sundown.

We paid for breakfast and then drove to Horseshoe Bend, just outside of Page. Our hostess had told us something about having to park in town and take a shuttle to the trail, but we simply drove to the trail, parked, and hiked about a mile round-trip to see the bend and back. At our visit, the trail was under construction and the parking lot was small, so I understood why there would be a need for shuttle busses, but I didn’t see any running while we were there.

Daniel dangling his feet off to “get one for the ‘Gram.”

Horseshoe Bend is simply a bend in the Colorado River that’s shaped like a horseshoe. It’s become a favorite site of photographers and Instagrammers (Daniel made sure to “get one for the ‘Gram”). It’s neat to look at, and it’s a short but moderate hike to the bend, but there’s not much else to do. It’s free, though—can’t beat that.

We got back on the road and drove U.S. 89 to Flagstaff. This route took us around the Navajo Nation and the Hopi Reservation, areas we didn’t really want to drive through a second time if we could help it. There is an incredible pull-off near Bitter Springs that looks out over the desert and towards the Grand Canyon that made the whole route worth it.

Approaching Flagstaff from the north, through the Coconino National Forest.

As we approached Flagstaff, I frequently took advantage of passing lanes to get by slower cars and trucks. I got pretty good at it, too—and then the check engine light on Vader’s dash started flashing.

“Oh, no,” I said. “Daniel, open the glove box and grab the owner’s manual. See what it says about a flashing check engine light.”

Daniel is not the best when it comes to using an index, but to his credit he found exactly what I was looking for, just as the light went away. “Misfire occurred,” he reported. “Could be due to spark plugs, over-revving the engine, or a bad fuel-air ratio. It says to take it easy on the engine and get it inspected by a dealer immediately.”

Not what I wanted to hear. Thoughts of what could be wrong rushed through my head. We had gained considerable altitude as we approached Flagstaff; could differences in air pressure or temperature, combined with accelerating, have caused the misfire?

I decided, since the light went away, to keep driving at a steady clip. We passed through Flagstaff and briefly got turned around as we tried to find Interstate 40. We also got cell service back and Daniel texted Mom to let her know where we were at.

“You know there’s a meteor crater near Flagstaff,” she said via text. “Y’all might want to check that out.”

“Hey, Matthew, did you know there’s a meteor crater near here?” Daniel asked.

“Yeah, I read something about it. It’s twenty dollars per person.” I was trying to keep Pard’s finances in mind. “You want to check it out?”

“Heck yeah!”

That decided it.

A chunk of meteorite, mostly nickel-iron, that weighs as much as a Volkswagen Beetle. It’s the largest fragment found to date.

The meteor crater is about thirty miles east of Flagstaff and four miles south of I-40. It doesn’t have a name; it’s just called “Meteor Crater Natural Landmark”. It’s not maintained by the National Park Service or any other governmental agency (which could be a good thing); in fact, the land is owned by a long-time rancher and the proceeds from the visitor’s center go to help maintain the crater.

The crater as viewed from the guided tour trail.

The crater was completely worth it. For eighteen bucks apiece (we each paid twenty and got a two-dollar bill in change!), we got access to the small but impressive museum and a free, guided tour along the crater rim. You can’t descend into the crater because doing so would start to erode it, but you can get some spectacular views from the rim anyway. Our tour guide told us quite a bit about both the natural history and the human history of the crater, and we learned that it is, in fact, the largest, best-preserved impact crater in the whole world. On top of that, the blast created at impact was equivalent to twenty-million tons of TNT.

A piece of wing from a Cessna that crashed in the crater back in the ’60s. Fortunately, no one was killed in the crash. Don’t fly into craters, kids.
Mining equipment left down inside the crater from over one-hundred years ago.
We love it when space comes to Earth!

After spending a bit longer at the crater than we intended, we drove a short distance further to Winslow, where we did indeed stand on the corner (yeah, we’re tourists!) and then stopped for gas. Things move slower in small towns off old Route 66, and that includes fuel.

“I could urinate faster than this!” a fellow traveler complained to me at the pump. “I mean, this is crazy!”

The good thing about our delay was that we got acquainted with a couple from Florida who had just retired and were taking a road trip across the country. “We just saved all we could and started investing in real estate, and now we’re basically being paid from our investments,” he explained. “We were both able to retire with all the benefits and we’re still making money on the side. You two guys are pretty young and you’ll get good jobs if you don’t already have them; just start socking away everything you can and learn about real estate. It pays for itself.”

We thanked him for the advice and said we would look into real estate. I stopped gassing up my truck before the tank was full because Daniel and I were both tired of waiting. We said good-bye to the kind man, and when we left the gas pump had evidently not shut off as it filled his Ford Edge. Gas spilled down the side of the car. I was glad I shut the pump off early and made a mental note never to stop at the Phillips 66 in Winslow ever again. (Word to the wise…)

Just takin’ it easy.
The man, the myth, the legend.

Daniel took the wheel and drove us on the long-haul from Winslow to Albuquerque with one brief bathroom pit-stop. As we rolled through I-40 construction outside of Albuquerque, he said the words I didn’t want to hear: “Matthew, the check engine light’s back on again.”

Oh dear.

The truck drove fine and the engine wasn’t shaking or making any sounds as far as we could tell, so since we were out in the middle of nowhere anyway, I told him to drive it steady into Albuquerque, where we would take it to an AutoZone and have the code scanned. I prayed it wasn’t anything serious, and that pressing on wouldn’t make anything worse.

We arrived in Albuquerque right at sundown, just as planned. We had a little trouble finding our AirBNB casita for the night, due in part to confusing roads and addresses, and in part to the lack of streetlights to illuminate the addresses. We stopped in briefly to examine the casita (quaint, quiet, and comfortable), then hopped back in Vader to grab dinner at a place called Monroe’s. We each had Southwestern-style sandwiches, but I don’t remember much of the meal because I was thinking about the truck. All I wanted to do was get it to AutoZone and, hopefully, be able to breathe a sigh of relief that the code was nothing.

We drove up to AutoZone and a guy about our age, from Fort Worth in fact, read the codes and then pulled them up on the computer. “Man, it doesn’t look good,” he said. “One’s a misfire, the other’s an issue with turbo underboost. Could be an issue with the turbocharger. I think you should get that checked out immediately. Don’t want you two breaking down on the way back to Texas; there’s nothing between here and there.”

I sighed. “Where can we take it?”

He consulted with one of the local guys, not an employee, who hung around the store to chat cars. “You need to take it to Brothers. I think they’ve worked on F-150s before. They open at nine tomorrow because it’s Saturday.” He wrote down the address and phone number on the printout of the error codes and handed it to me. “Good luck, guys. Hope you can get it figured out.”

We went back to the casita and made plans for the next day. I had hoped to leave early, as had been our precedent, but having to wait until nine o’clock to visit the mechanic would scrap those plans. I gave Dad a call and asked if he had any advice.

“Do your research,” he said. He and Mom were watching a James Bond movie. “Pray about it and sleep on it. Let me know tomorrow morning.”

Everything I was reading online was making me worry even more: Owners who reported the same codes were having their turbochargers overhauled and replaced. That would be expensive, time-consuming, and unsafe to drive without. I pulled myself away from my phone and prayed fervently that God would provide us a way to get it fixed quickly so we could get back home, and a backup plan if not.

Daniel, true to form, took a leisurely, hot shower, then plopped down on the mattress to listen to reggae music while checking in on social media. My shower was cold because he used all the hot water, but I didn’t get onto him about it. Instead, I told him we’d sleep in, take our time getting ready to go in the morning, and then be at the garage called Brothers well before they opened. He agreed, and we turned out the lights.

We both slept pretty well that night considering we shared a bed. It always winds up being a battle for the blanket whenever we sleep in the same bed, but I think we were both so tired that it didn’t matter.

The next morning, I washed my face and checked my phone. A text from Dad lit up the screen: “Good morning travelers! Call me when you get up and we will talk truck stuff.”

I did. Dad had spent some time researching the same error code and came across different results. He said it was likely spark plugs, from what he read. “Take it to your guy,” he said, referring to Brothers. “He’s the one they recommended, so go to him, and go with God.”

After I got off the phone with Dad, Daniel and I packed up and ensured the casita looked spick and span before walking out for the last time. I looked up and saw a dozen hot-air balloons dotting the clear, blue Albuquerque sky. Maybe the day wouldn’t be so bad, after all. (Sadly, all our camera batteries had died, so I didn’t get any good photos of the balloons. And that’s why, sadly, the rest of this post has no pictures.)

I looked at the map on my phone and saw that there was a Chick-fil-A close to the garage, just on the other side of I-25 (the CanAm highway). We drove through and grabbed breakfast, then parked ourselves outside Brothers Complete Autocare at half-past eight, eating our chicken biscuits and drinking milk while we waited for nine.

I saw the garage bay door go up at a quarter to nine, so I got out of the truck and walked in to investigate. I looked around and didn’t see anyone, but then a middle-aged Hispanic gentleman peeked around the corner at me. “Buenos días,” I said. I don’t know why I automatically went to Spanish, but I trusted my instincts. “¿Hablas inglés?”

He smiled. “Eh, little bit.” He gapped his thumb and forefinger for emphasis.

I tried to explain what the problem was across the language barrier. I told him I was from Texas, trying to drive home, and was having engine trouble. I thought it was the spark plugs. He listened attentively and I could tell he wanted to help. “Is outside?” he asked, pointing.

“Sí,” I said, and led him to it. We popped the hood and he set to work on it immediately. I stood outside and watched him, while Daniel sat inside and slowly enjoyed breakfast, listening to Tears for Fears.

As the minutes ticked by, some local guys, the kind who like to hang around garages, showed up and stood around as the mechanic worked away at the engine. He explained to them what the problem was, in Spanish, and they would ask questions or offer suggestions. My Spanish being rudimentary at best, I could catch a few key words and phrases, but much of it was lost on me.

“Look here,” he said finally, pointing to the number-one coil pack. “See? Is new.” He pointed at the others. “Original.” The coil pack for the first cylinder was not nearly as dirty as the others were. “Might be some problem before, I don’t know?”

“I don’t know,” I said. I knew I had never changed it, nor had my mechanic back home. “Do you have a replacement?”

“Un momento.” He put on his headset and made a phone call. “Hola, Carlos.” He told Carlos, who worked at the local O’Reilly Auto Parts, what he needed. He shook his head and took the headset off. “They no have it. You want me to try spark plugs?”

I told him yes, and he asked Carlos about them. “They no have spark plugs,” he said regretfully, shaking his head.

“What else can we do?” I asked him.

“I will call someone else.” He dialed another nearby store and told them what he needed. “They have them,” he said to me. “Fifty dollars.”

“Do it,” I said. He nodded and placed the order.

“Gracias,” I told him when he got off the phone. “I appreciate your help.”

He smiled. “De nada. Is my job. Is what I do.” He plunged back under the hood and started unscrewing the old spark plugs.

Pretty soon, a young lady drove up in an auto parts truck and dropped off the new plugs. The mechanic quickly gapped them and set to work installing them. In the meantime, I kept Mom and Dad posted on the progress. “Trust your mechanic,” Dad encouraged. “He is the answered prayer.”

The mechanic’s son, who spoke fluent English, showed up about this time and started working on someone else’s car but then came by to talk to us when the work was finished. He cleared the codes on the truck and we fired the engine up. It turned over fine and sounded healthy. The check engine light stayed off. He advised I get some octane booster from AutoZone and then fill up with premium gas to ensure the fuel-air mixture wouldn’t be too lean.

“How much do I owe you?” I asked him after he lowered the hood.

“Eh, one-twenty?” he reckoned on the spot.

“Do you have change for one-fifty?”

“Sure.” We both pulled out our wallets and exchanged the money. I shook his hand. “Muchas gracias, señor.”

“You’re welcome. Good luck.”

And with that, we hit the road just after 10:00 A.M. Mountain. I drove us from Albuquerque to Tucumcari, and Vader ran great. We filled up in Tucumcari, and Daniel drove us from there to Wichita Falls, where I took the reins one final time and drove us the last two hours into DFW. We arrived at 8:30 P.M. Central, for a total of nine hours of nearly non-stop driving. We made good time and the miles rolled by as we listened to everything from Willie Nelson to Pearl Jam.

And so ended our bro-trip to the American Southwest, packed with adventure, thrills and chills, and many more memories than what I’ve shared here. Would I do it again? In a heartbeat.

There are a few things we learned for the next trip. First, it’s good to know what cell coverage is like where you’re going, especially if you’re driving through places like the Navajo Nation. A backup satellite phone would be good to have. Second, it wouldn’t hurt to carry some basic auto parts, such as spark plugs and coil packs, just in case. Third, make sure your tent sleeping arrangement is comfortable; we suffered from no support until we bought new Therm-a-Rests and struggled with a lack of space the whole time.

Finally, when camping, stay clean! Our campground didn’t have showers, so we made do with body wipes and dry shampoo (or at least I did) for four days. One reason a lot of people don’t like to camp is because they can’t get clean, and it’s completely understandable. No one wants to go to bed feeling sticky from the day’s sweat. Some good body wipes go a long way (such as these from Surviveware, which were awesome—affiliate link alert). And dry shampoo (I used this one from Hair Dance), even for those with short hair, makes a big difference. Just ask Daniel; he didn’t use any and his hair was hideous!!

I hope you’ve enjoyed these tales of our epic adventure. If you get a chance to “go west, young man (or woman)”, go! Every state we passed through had its own unique natural beauty and charm, but Utah was simply beautiful to me. There is so much more to do there, including Bryce Canyon National Park, Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, Canyonlands National Park, and Arches National Park—not to mention a myriad of state parks and other natural areas. And, of course, there’s the Grand Canyon, too.

I can’t wait to go back.

American Southwest Bro-Trip, Part 3: Open Roads and No Coverage

Driver Dan, looking ready for a pizza and hot wings.

We slept really well at the Best Western in Santa Rosa. We woke up the next morning, bright and early, and walked to the lobby for the complimentary breakfast. At 6 A.M. MST, the sun was already peaking over the horizon. Daniel commented on how calm and quiet the desert was, even in a town.

We helped ourselves to the bounteous, delicious breakfast as we watched the local news and people-watched other travelers. An older man with a thick Texas accent and a booming voice came into the lobby and asked the staff, “Do y’all know the road conditions going up to Pagosa? I’m trying to get to Pagosa and I don’t know what the road conditions are.”

“No, sir, but we can check for you,” said the man at the counter.

“Naw, that’s all right, I can do that myself. I’s just wonderin’ if you knew.”

He then grabbed a plate and loaded it up with breakfast items. Daniel was retrieving some sausage and eggs at the time, and the gentleman came up behind him. “Oh, excuse me,” Daniel said.

“Naw, don’t worry, bubba, I’s just goin’ to tell ya to leave the lid up for me, I’m right behind ya!” he declared to the whole room.

“Oh, well, there you go!” Daniel said as he stepped away.

“Thanks, pard!” The man placed some eggs on the plate and then left as Daniel returned to our table and we chuckled. He was evidently from far west Texas.

A minute later, he came back. “I got this food for my wife; she’s still in bed. She might appreciate a fork!” I think everyone in the lobby cracked up.

After we finished breakfast, we walked back to our motel room to pack our last things and then hit the road. We saw our cowboy friend again, but this time he was walking a little brown terrier and talking on the phone. “Yeah, I’m just out here in Santa Rosa, walking Bear!” he hollered. “I just got breakfast for Lori; she’s still in bed!”

A few minutes later, as we were loading the truck, I heard his voice again. “Bear! Come here, Bear!” I guess Bear decided to go for a morning run.

From that point on, we joked about the funny west Texas man throughout the trip. Daniel even called me “bubba” for the whole trip and I called him “pard.” And there were more than a few cases when Daniel faked a Big Tex accent when talking to strangers just to see what their reactions would be.

It just goes to show that the things you do on trips are fun, but oftentimes it’s the people you meet who make travel even more memorable. We would meet a whole cast of interesting characters during our journey.

On the road again, we drove to Albuquerque, still with a high wind blowing straight into us. We decided to stop at a Wal-Mart there so Daniel could buy himself a real water bottle to replace the one he left behind. Also, I had read online (and made the mistake of mentioning to Daniel) that the house used in the TV show Breaking Bad was located in an Albuquerque neighborhood. Daniel, a fan of the show, got very excited and said we had to see it. So we did.

Daniel standing in front of Walter White’s house. No, we didn’t buy any blue meth to take home (or take, period).

We bought the bottle at Wal-Mart after taking a bathroom break, then drove to the Walter White house. Since the show was filmed, the owners have erected a fence around the property, installed security cameras, and placed a sign out front indicating that “visitors” should take their photos from across the street and not disturb them. The house also has a new roof since, apparently, previous “visitors” threw pizzas onto the old one. (It’s a scene from the show, which I haven’t seen.)

One of many BNSF trains we passed along I-40.

After I took several photos of Daniel in front of the house (all from across the street, as the owners requested), I let him drive Vader for the first time on the trip. I navigated him back onto I-40 and we continued west to gas up in Gallup. The terrain is very interesting along this stretch of highway, and makes the BNSF trains look very small in comparison. Otherwise, there’s not much to see or do, so we kept listening to Daniel’s playlist of 70s and 80s hits while rolling on. We crossed the Continental Divide to Peter Gabriel’s “Solsbury Hill” which, if you haven’t heard it before, you need to listen to immediately after reading this.

Mount Taylor as viewed from I-40.

In Gallup, I gassed up the truck while Daniel went into the station to use the restroom. He couldn’t find the men’s room, so he grumbled his way over to the nearby Panda Express to do his business. I, having finished topping off the tank, walked into the gas station and asked the attendant if there was a men’s room. He handed me a piece of wood with a key attached and said it was on the side of the building, outside. I thanked him and used the secret bathroom that Daniel didn’t bother to ask about. (Though I will say that the bathroom in the Panda Express was probably better.)

With a full tank and empty bladders, I took the wheel and we drove north on U.S. 391, known as the Devil’s Highway because it used to be numbered U.S. 666. The reassuring part was that we’d only be on the Devil’s Highway for a short distance, as our route took us along New Mexico 264 into Arizona. I suggested we listen to “The Number of the Beast” by Iron Maiden during our short stint on this highway some thought to be cursed, but Daniel instead put on some Hall and Oates. Whatever.

We crossed into Arizona in the town of Window Rock and almost immediately the terrain changed again. It’s interesting to me how one can cross state lines and the geography changes so fast. It’s hard to explain how it changes; it just does. I could already tells that the Arizona desert, or badlands, looked different than those of New Mexico.

We also were officially in the Navajo Reservation, a sovereign nation within the United States. The land is owned by the Navajo tribe collectively and not by individuals. And it certainly did feel like we were in a different country.

For one, most of the vehicles on the road were older trucks. We saw many Navajo men shouldering packs and walking alongside the road. As we traveled, we’d encounter numerous hitchhikers. I can only assume that it’s a common occurrence on the Navajo land, and that it’s a courtesy for one man to give a ride to another. Even if we did want to help someone out (we didn’t), we didn’t have room in our packed-out half-ton.

We also noticed the more, shall we say, rustic way in which many of the people lived. Houses looked dilapidated. In fact, lots of things looked dilapidated on the Navajo land. Stray dogs and horses roamed about the desert land that was every man’s but no man’s.

The land itself though was beautiful.

Blue skies and open roads stretching as far as the eye can see. This is what road trips are all about.

We drove through the Navajo National Forest, reaching an elevation of 6,000 feet with snow on the ground on either side of us. We then descended significantly into a broad desert plain, with mesas stretching out all around us. I wished I were on a motorcycle, or driving a convertible. These were the quintessential American roads, and the scenery quintessential American West!

Oh, and we lost cell service the minute we crossed into Arizona and, thus, Navajo territory. More on that later.

Canyon de Chelly as viewed from the canyon rim.

We again headed north on U.S. 191 to the Canyon de Chelly National Monument near Chinle, AZ. The national monument is on Navajo land and therefore most of the hikes and trails require a Navajo guide, and a guide costs money. There is, however, one trail that is unguided, and therefore free: The White House Ruins trail. We gathered some information from the visitor center and then prepared for a hike to break up the driving.

As I waited for Daniel to finish up in the restroom, a whole fleet of Suburbans and Tahoes pulled into the parking lot. At first I thought some dignitary might be visiting—why else would these many vehicles roll in at once?

And then they parked, and then they got out. Italians, dozens of them.

The couples had evidently rented SUVs for an American West trip not too unlike our own. From the magnetic signs they had affixed to the vehicle doors, it appeared that they were either starting or ending in Las Vegas. They looked to be mostly couples, late thirties and up. They stood around and took pictures and chatted quickly amongst themselves.

I tried to strike up conversation with a man nearby. “Where are you from?” I asked, playing ignorant but trying to be pleasant.

He looked at me blankly for a few seconds. “Non capisco,” he said. I don’t understand.

I smiled and waved. “Well, have a good day then!” I said, even though he wouldn’t understand that either. I hoped he understood the intention behind it, at least.

The White House Ruins from above…

Daniel and I started The White House Ruins hike after refilling our water bottles and grabbing some snacks. It would be about two hours total, and consisted of a six-hundred-foot descent into the canyon and then an ascent back up to the canyon rim. The main fixture of the trail is a small cluster of ancient homes, white houses, built in the recess of the canyon wall. Unlike Mesa Verde National Park in Colorado, and maybe other similar places, you cannot go up to these ruins and walk through them. They are fenced off, but you can admire them from a distance, as we did.

…and from below. Note the pictographs of what appear to be a man and a bird just to the right of center.

As we approached the ruins, an elderly couple advised us to use my long-range lens to view the pictographs on the canyon wall up close. As we switched out the lenses, a young Navajo (sales)man named Wilbert stopped us to explain his history, the history of his people, and the meanings of the different pictographs. He also explained that the different between a pictograph and a petroglyph is that a pictograph is painted on the rock (in this case, using a mixture of egg white, animal urine, and other ingredients) while a petroglyph is carved into the rock. He showed us this with the facsimile carvings he had made into sandstone, which he had on display in front of us.

“Wow, that’s some really great artwork,” I said.

“Thanks,” he said. “It’s my craft. It’s my art. It’s how I express myself, you know?”

“Yeah,” I said, a fellow artist. Knowing where the conversation was going, I took the initiative. “I take it you sell these?”

“Oh, yeah, you know, I sell these,” he said. Fresh meat.

“How much?” I pointed at one with the white houses and the glyphs carved into it.

“I usually sell this one for thirty.”

I looked at Daniel. “You want one?”

“Sure,” he said, reaching for his wallet.

He had two rocks with the white houses carved into them side-by-side. “How about those two for forty?” I said.

“Yeah, I can do that,” he said. He wrapped both pieces in newspaper and handed them to us as we passed him two twenties. “Thanks.”

“Thank you, Wilbert,” I said. “We appreciate you telling us more about the graphs and your people’s heritage.”

He wished us well, threw the remaining rocks into his backpack, and walked off to his home, somewhere in or on the canyon. I felt like Daniel and I each got a good deal—our first souvenirs for the trip—and Wilbert walked away with forty bucks he didn’t have that morning. Forty dollars for selling carved stones probably isn’t a bad way to make a living for someone in his way of life.

An ancient footprint in the rock?

We took pictures of the houses and rocks and then hiked back up the trail, some of the last people around as the sun began to drop lower to the west. We still had quite a bit of distance to cover before we reached our destination for the night: Goulding’s Lodge in Monument Valley.

One of many behemoths that dotted the landscape.

Daniel fired up Vader the truck and we hit the road again. We passed lots of buttes, mesas, and other amazing (and strange) rock formations, wondering how they came to be the way they are. We also passed plenty of Navajo homesteads, some nestled beneath or into the rocks, others with grand views of the giants in their backyards. It is indeed a different country.

Our first Arizona sunset.

One thing about driving in the west is that routes are indirect by virtue. It’s impossible, or at least doggone expensive, to build roads over the incredible landscape that forms this part of America, so the roads wind around these amazing feats of nature for miles. Somewhere along the way to Kayenta, we got on the wrong road and wound up traveling much farther north than we intended to and had to double back southwest.

As the sun set, we decided to stop at the Pizza Wave restaurant in Kayenta, right next to the local Ace Hardware. Famished from the hike, Daniel wanted a large pizza and wings. We split the cost, and ate most of the king-sized pizza and twenty wings (ten mild for me, ten hot for him) alone in the back of the restaurant. (I’d managed to bust a plastic cup trying to put a lid on it, and spilled water everywhere. I figured we’d better just stay out of the way after that incident.)

And we still had no cell service.

As a habit, one of us tried to ping Mom and Dad every few hours just to let them know where we were. We’d been out of range all afternoon, and I kept thinking, “Maybe we’ll get service when we reach this place,” or “Maybe we’ll get service when we reach this town.” No such luck.

Green skies at night.

I let Daniel grab to-go boxes for the remaining food and I drove us the last twenty minutes or so to Monument Valley in the dark. It was only 7:30 P.M., but I was still apprehensive about driving on a lonely, two-lane desert highway. I just turned on my high beams and kept my speed reasonable.

We crossed into Utah for the first time and then took a left off U.S. 163 to get to Goulding’s Lodge. As we approached, Daniel leaned forward to look up. “Matthew, is that a cloud?”

I looked ahead of us in the darkness. “That’s no cloud—that’s a rock.”

Looming right ahead and above us in the parking lot was a towering butte, and Goulding’s is nestled right underneath it. Daniel freaked out in excitement. “Oh, man, that’s so scary!” (I don’t think he thought it was scary; I think he just didn’t know what to say when confronted with such a big hunk of rock.)

I parked in the wrong place, but we managed to find the lobby and walked inside to check in. “What’s the last name for the reservation?” the lady at the front asked.

“Baker,” I said.

Matthew Baker?” the other lady at the front asked.

I was a bit surprised. “That’s me.”

“I just got off the phone with your mom!”

Oh boy.

Apparently, Mom had been fairly worried about us since we hadn’t been able to communicate with her all afternoon. She called the lodge to see if I’d checked in, and they had just got off the phone with her.

“I’ll call her once we get to our room,” I assured the ladies at the front. “Thanks for letting me know.”

I didn’t even stop to take in the furnishings of our room; I went straight to the phone, not knowing what to expect. I dialed her number. I listened to the phone ring.

I heard her pick it up.

“Where have you been?”

Oh boy.

Come to find out, she’d called police departments all along our route through the Navajo Reservation and even had the Arizona State Patrol on the lookout. She was reassured by the fact that they checked local hospitals for patients and we weren’t among them. But we were still MIA as far as she was concerned.

Also come to find out, there are only certain cell providers that have coverage in that part of Arizona and Utah. The things you learn.

I did my best to reassure her and to thank her for her concern, and then asked her to call off the cavalry. We’d do our best to communicate with her tomorrow, I said. I figured we’d have service when we made it to Page, AZ—at least I hoped we would.

Next time, I’ll just ask to use a gas station phone.

With that taken care of, we were both pretty tired. The motel room at Goulding’s was plain but well-furnished, and comfortable. We had a balcony looking out towards Monument Valley, and were assured that we would have a beautiful view of the monuments come sunrise.

We were too tired to do much else but shower and hit the hay. I kept thinking about Mom and her concern for us, how blessed we are to have a mother who cares about our safety on the road. I mean that in all seriousness. Maybe next time she wouldn’t have to alert local law enforcement, though.

I did feel a tinge of homesickness as I realized that Daniel and I, two brothers on a spring break trip, were the outliers at a place like Goulding’s. Middle-aged adults and retirees flocked to places like this, and here we were, two college dudes showing up to lower the median age. This was the kind of place Mom and Dad would love to stay, and I felt a sense of something—not guilt, but similar—that we were enjoying something that most people our age would never enjoy, and certainly would never appreciate, until they were thirty years down the road. Even then, I’m not sure if they’d enjoy or appreciate it. Heck, we hadn’t even seen the monuments in the daylight yet!

With those thoughts running through my mind, I slowly drifted off to sleep after a long and eventful day, a little warm, but not too hot in the motel room at Goulding’s Lodge, with a sleeping, ancient giant watching over me.

American Southwest Bro-Trip, Part 2: Day 1

He who must travel happily must travel light.

Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

Friday, March 8, 2019: 10:37 AM

We closed the doors of Vader the truck for the final time as we sat in the driveway. I turned the key and the twin-turbocharged V6 roared to life, accompanied by the usual dinging: Fasten your seatbelts. I checked the load of gear piled up in the extended cab behind me. It looked stable enough, and I had decent visibility. We buckled in, I shifted to Drive, and we turned out of the driveway and onto the open road.

We got to the intersection with the main road and I realized I forgot my cold-weather coat.

After a u-turn, a dash into the house, and a final last good-bye to Dad, we strapped in and pulled out again, and this time, we didn’t come back.

Then, as we navigated the snaking highways of downtown Fort Worth with Eddie Money’s “Gimme Some Water” playing through the stereo, Daniel realized he forgot his water bottle. How ironic.


I woke up around 6:00 AM that morning and immediately got to work packing the final things on my list: toothbrush, toothpaste, pillow (I almost always travel with my own), and the like. Daniel woke up around the same time, ate breakfast, and went to school to take that exam that his crazy professor moved forward from after spring break.

Dad, operating at Mom’s behest, bought a us all a second breakfast from Chick-fil-A to eat before we left. I must say that trip planning and packing and loading do sap one’s energy, so I was more than happy to eat on a hobbit meal plan. We devoured the chicken minis and then saddled up.

Which brings us back to the Fort Worth traffic and Daniel forgetting his water bottle. Of all the things we brought, all the gear piled high in the extended cab and all the other camping gear and food in the truck bed, he had forgotten his water bottle. I wondered what else he might have forgotten.

We would find out before too long.


Our plan for Day 1 was to drive from DFW to Santa Rosa, NM, and spend the night at the Best Western Santa Rosa Inn. The original plan was to drive all the way to Albuquerque on Day 1, but due to our delayed departure from Daniel’s unexpected exam we had to shore things up a bit. Since Daniel had been up well after midnight studying for said exam and only had about four hours of sleep, I decided I would do all the driving on this first day and let him rest.

It’s hard to rest when you’re excited about a trip, though. We talked a lot and listened to his special trip playlist. The first song as we pulled out was “Hammer to Fall” by Queen, followed by “I Can’t Drive 55” as we hit the highway and proceeded to hit 75. Following that were some deep cuts from Eddie Money, such as the aforementioned “Gimme Some Water”, which I abused so much by singing at Daniel over the trip that I don’t think he’ll ever want to listen to it again.

Our first stop was the Love’s in Wichita Falls, just two hours down the road. We took this opportunity to empty our bladders and get Daniel some water (partly so he could quench his thirst and partly so I would stop repeating the “Gimme Some Water” refrain). On the way into the city we spotted our first international license plate: Quebec.

After a quick stop, we got back on the road and pressed on to Amarillo, where we planned to eat dinner. The drive from Wichita Falls to Amarillo is not a very exciting one, unless you count State Troopers pulling out to pull over speeding motorists exciting.

Daniel switched his playlist up and I was treated to–ugh–Ween. He mixed it up by throwing in some Mike Posner, but neither did much for me. Posner has some interesting arrangements, but Ween is just kind of weird and hard to take seriously. I will give them props for touching on so many different genres: One minute they sound like Motörhead, the next they sound like Stone Temple Pilots, and then after that they’re drawing influences from Ennio Morricone.

Around Childress, Daniel fell asleep. That enabled me to put on some music I wanted to listen to, namely Rush. I drove us onward as the dystopian-themed Grace Under Pressure album played at low volume, grooving to Geddy’s Steinberger bass lines and occasionally air-drumming (with one hand on the wheel!) to Neil’s fills.

As we neared Amarillo, Daniel woke up and I told him to find a place to eat, preferably somewhere right off the highway. We’d seen signs for The Big Texan Steak Ranch along the road for many miles, and I asked if he’d like to try it out. He agreed, so we set our course for an early steak dinner.

For those who don’t know, the unique thing about The Big Texan is its Texas King steak challenge. If you can eat a 72 oz. steak with sides and a salad within an hour, your meal is free. Like they say, everything’s bigger (and better) in Texas.

Neither of us were that hungry, but steak sounded good, so we whipped into the parking lot and sat down in the lodge-themed dining area underneath the mounted heads of bucks, bulls, and bears. We came in just before 4:00 PM, which meant that we could still order from the (cheaper) lunch menu. Talk about great timing! We each settled on a 9 oz. ribeye, me with a baked potato and green beans for sides, and Daniel with fried okra and, if I remember correctly, steak fries. We admired the taxidermal wonders around us and watched as a man sat at a table on a stage and attempted to devour The King Steak while waiting on our own steaks.

And what great steaks they were! Cooked medium, juicy and flavorful, chewy and succulent. My potato and beans were delicious, too. They even brought a jalapeño for each of us. I took a bite of mine and said, “This isn’t too bad!” I ate it easily.

Daniel, the guy who tries spicy peppers, took a bite of his and couldn’t handle the heat. “Do you want mine?” he asked. I thought he was wimping out on me.

He wasn’t. I took a bite and instantly regretted it. My sinuses started running, my eyes teared up, and my face flushed. I couldn’t drink enough water. It was that bad. Daniel laughed as I languished. And yes, I was too manly to ask for some milk.

After the jalapeño fiasco, we paid and hit the road again, pressing on all the way to Santa Rosa. We topped off the tank before we left Amarillo listening to “Amarillo by Morning” by George Strait (to whom I argued we should listen because, heck, we were in Texas!). I let George serenade us all the way to the New Mexican border as we drove past cattle, ranches, and wind turbines.

The landscape took a stark change as we approached the New Mexico. The ranches disappeared and suddenly there was rock and scrub brush on both sides of I-40. I noted that the wind started picking up, too. A few minutes later, we crossed into “The Land of Enchantment” and watched the sun set ahead of us.

It was the most unusual sunset I think either of us have ever seen. We indeed saw the sun for the first time all day, blazing directly in front of us and low on the horizon. Maybe it was the clouds, or the wind, or some other weather phenomenon, but the sky was colored all colors of the rainbow: purple on our left, orange and yellow in front, and even green on our right. I’d never seen a green sky before.

And the wind was intense. Daniel’s phone warned of wind gusts up to 60 miles per hour, I think. I slowed my speed a bit as I watched my gas mileage tumble on the truck’s trip computer. Driving Vader into the wind was like trying to slice cold butter with the rounded part of a spoon.

The sun fell below the horizon and left us on the dark desert highway, along with everyone else trying to reach Tucumcari, Santa Rosa, or Albuquerque at a reasonable hour. The miles went by fast even at a slower speed, and before we knew it we were in Santa Rosa, pulling into the Best Western off old Route 66.

It was our first time staying in a motel, and I wasn’t sure what to expect. The lobby was clean and inviting. I checked in and drove around to our motel room, where we unloaded only the necessities for one night. Our motel room was fantastic, too: two queen beds, two sinks, and immaculate. And if we needed anything from Vader, he was parked right outside!

We settled in, which didn’t take long, and unwound. Daniel fired up the TV and watched basketball; I grabbed one of the books I’d brought with me, Armada by Ernest Cline, and read a few chapters while munching on a bagel topped with peanut butter and honey. Good stuff.

We showered and hit the hay early, because even though we’d gained an hour when we crossed into Mountain Time at the New Mexico border, we would lose that hour the next night due to Daylight Saving’s Time. We would soon find that time was relative, as Einstein might say, not only based on which state we were in but which part of which state we were in. I found it easiest to just assume we were already on Mountain Daylight Time and deal with any time-related issues later.

“Oh, dang it.” Daniel interrupted my thoughts as I finished up my journal entry for the day. “I brought the wrong pillow!”

Par for the course.

And, if you were wondering why there aren’t any pictures from this part of the trip, that’s because we switched out memory cards in my camera and the one from the first part of the trip has gone AWOL. I hope it’s somewhere in the truck, but I’ve yet to find it. For all I know it may have been found by housekeeping in the motel room. If so, I hope they enjoy pictures of US-287 and whatever else is on it!