On the Road: Stuck in the Zip Code Twilight Zone, Playing Double Dutch on the Freeway and Doing the Greasy

Southern California to Northern California.  Two (stuffed) cars are better than one.

From personal experience, the following is my advice on moving from one part of the state to another when said move involves packed-to-the-brim vehicles and many hundreds of miles of freeway driving:

  1. If clothes, furnishings and household utensils extend halfway up your rear window, you will be able to see only the roof of the little foreign car tailgating you for twenty miles or so.  How does that old saying go again?  If you’re not a hemorrhoid, get off my ass.
  2. When driving an overloaded vehicle, never play leapfrog with a yellow Penske van driven by a maniacal SOB who would just love to see you careen off the freeway into a ditch at 70 miles per hour.
  3. Consider investing in a bumper sticker bearing the logo: “I’ve just been laid off and I’m moving in with my mother-in-law.  Go ahead, make my day.”
  4. The right side view mirror is your friend, particularly if that end of your rear window is blocked by the upended legs of a chair or table and a pile of blankets and pillows.  When passing a vehicle on the interstate, it really is necessary to check said mirror before pulling back into the right hand lane.  Trust me on this one.
  5. Never, ever agree to follow anyone or to have anyone follow you for more than 500 miles.  Particularly if the anyone is your wife.

Having turned in the keys to our rental house on Thursday (my last day of work), we spent a night in a motel and hit the road at six o’clock Friday morning.  Both cars were packed to within an inch of their sorry automotive lives, including the trunk, the back seat, the floorboards and the passenger seat.  Just enough room for the driver remained.  Northward ho!

My wife followed me as we trekked across the desert from the Arizona border to Coachella, our first refueling stop.  We stopped on opposite sides of the same gas pump, with the idea that we’d fill one vehicle and then pass the nozzle over to fill the other one, all on the same credit card receipt.  This should be a snap, I thought, and we’ll be off in a jiffy.  What I forgot is that nothing ever goes smoothly when you’re traveling.

These days, most gas pumps in California require the purchaser to key in his or her billing zip code after swiping a credit card.  Having updated our records with the credit card company, I input our new zip code.  Incorrect.  Alrighty then, let’s try the zip code we just left an hour and a half ago.  Incorrect.  (Sigh.)  Let’s go back to the new zip code, keying it very carefully, one digit at a time.

DENIED, flashed the display.

What do you mean, “denied?”  It can’t be denied!  We have used this same credit card forever.  Well, maybe not forever, but at least since our credit card number was stolen the last time we moved.  It seems we had entered the Twilight Zone, a strange purgatory between zip codes where matter and anti-matter collide and you simply cease to exist.

Now what?  Fortunately, we had cash on us.  But I was stewing.  This sort of petty inconvenience gets me riled up way beyond anything remotely warranted.  And then I went inside the truck stop to use the rest room, only to find that every single stall in the men’s room was occupied.  All six of them.  What the hell?  Have I stumbled upon a pooping convention?  Or has every traveler on the I-10, in some cosmic coincidence, chosen this exact moment to take a dump?  I really, really wanted to say bad words.  Instead, I got back in the Mercury and roared over the San Gorgonio Pass on the way to our prearranged breakfast stop in Calimesa.

I had suggested stopping at Bob’s Big Boy, although I couldn’t remember exactly which exit to take.  “I think it’s County Line Road,” said my wife the previous night.  “Why don’t you look it up on your phone?”

Of course I didn’t look it up on my phone.  And of course County Line Road was not the correct exit.

What we needed was the exit before County Line Road.  My wife figured this out easily, but I, being thick in the brain, did not.  She zoomed ahead of me and exited at County Line Road while I followed her back onto the eastbound freeway to backtrack to our correct exit.

Now it was her turn to fume.  “Didn’t you see the huge sign?” she demanded.

“No,” I admitted sheepishly.

“Didn’t you hear me honking and honking?”

With the windows closed, the air conditioner blowing and Rod Stewart serenading me through my iPod?  Not a chance.

At least we lucked out with a fabulous breakfast.  Big Boy’s breakfast buffet was as good as I remembered it from back east, with bacon and sausage for my wife and oatmeal, fruit and home fried potatoes for me.

We agreed to gas up before hitting the freeway again.  Now, one would think that I could successfully follow another vehicle less than a mile to a filling station.  No such luck.  This is me we’re talking about, remember.  Mr. Thick.

Somehow, I didn’t see where my wife turned off, and then missed the gas station as I drove right by it.  After driving a couple of miles down the road, I realized that I must have made a mistake somewhere along the way.  I pulled into Del Taco and checked my phone.  Sure enough, she had texted me.  “You missed the gas station.”

“Going back now,” I responded, backtracking and, miraculously, noticing the big Arco sign this time around.

“Clearly, this is not working!” my wife exclaimed as I pulled up to the pumps.  She was spitting mad.

And indeed, clearly it was not.  As the saying goes:  “Do not lead, as I may not follow.  Do not follow, as I may not lead.  Just walk beside me and be my friend.”  If you can figure out how this applies to doing the double dutch down the freeway, by all means let me know.

I actually managed to successfully follow my wife about 90 miles down the 210 through Pasadena and onto the I-5, stopping only once to switch cars when my leg was cramping so badly that I could barely lift it to the brake pedal.  You should know that the I-5 interchange involves six lanes of traffic and the Highway 14 split.  So I promptly lost sight of my wife again.  And caught up with her just as she was exiting at Newhall.  Now, I had a feeling she might stop at Newhall, as we have stopped there many times before and it is one of the last decent stopping places before heading over the Grapevine.  The only problem was that I didn’t actually see my wife get off the freeway and, fortunately for me, just caught a glimpse of her car at the very last second that I could turn the wheel without missing the exit entirely.

From Newhall, we chugged over the ‘vine and into our regular overnight rest stop in Buttonwillow, Kern County.  “See if you can get a room in the front,” my wife asked as I prepared to go in and register.  “Hurry!” she added, as she saw another guest coming from behind — another guest who might take the last room in the front.  I rushed over to the door and, pulling it open, realized that I had just entered the laundry area.  The other door, behind me, was the door to the registration area, that is, the area where the other guest was busily paying for her room at the counter.  “Face it,” I thought, “I can’t do anything right.”  I feel a deep, abiding kinship with Charlie Brown.  (Although, so far, no one has called me a blockhead.  Wishy-washy, maybe.)

The importance of renting a motel room in the front of the property is twofold:  First, you want to avoid having to drag your suitcases down an exterior corridor or over the grassy area by the pool.  Second, when you are traveling with two loaded-down cars, it is helpful to be able to see them directly outside your window so that when some miscreant breaks into them in the middle of the night, at least you can dial 911 and yell “help, help, oh help” while the thief makes off with all your possessions.  We didn’t really need all that old stuff anyway, now did we?

When the woman who hurried in front of me to the registration desk finally finished, I shuffled up to the clerk to learn that there was exactly one room left unrented in the front of the property.  But it was a smoking room (choke, gag).  I texted my wife to see whether she wanted the smoking room.  “Sure,” came back the reply.

Suffice it to say that we did indeed choke and gag for most of the night.  We borrowed some air freshener from the front desk, but it didn’t really help very much.  The smoke just seeps into your lungs, your hair and your clothes.  And although no one broke into our cars, we both wished we had taken a room in the back and bump-bump-bumped the suitcases over the lawn by the pool (particularly when the air conditioning quit on us about midnight).

Then came the matter of dinner.  We saw a barbecue joint, an Indian restaurant that received poor reviews online, a plethora of fast food establishments and Denny’s.  We settled for Denny’s, having visited this particular location on many occasions and having been impressed by their excellent service.  For road food, Denny’s is actually fairly dependable.

Except not this time.  My wife ordered bacon and toast.  Her toast was actually cold.  “Now, how can you mess up toast?” you may ask.  Leave it to Denny’s, they managed.  My wife is generally reluctant to send any dish back to the kitchen, no matter how bad it is.  After all, we’ve read the horror stories about how such dishes are, shall we say “adulterated,” before being returned to the table.  But this time, the toast was so inedible that my wife did send it back.  Did they prepare her a new order of toast?  Heck, no!  They simply warmed it up and brought it back out.

As for her bacon, she had ordered it done crispy.  Instead it came out done greasy.  Greasy and inedible.

So much for depending on Denny’s (although I must say that my veggie burger and six little pieces of broccoli were excellent).

In the morning, we headed into the home stretch, driving more than two hours down the road before stopping for breakfast at a truck stop in Santa Nella, Merced County.  We stopped here for dinner recently and were singularly unimpressed.  For the sake of convenience, however, we decided to give their breakfast a chance.  Their breakfast buffet was actually not bad at all.

As it was late in the morning when we arrived, the staff was just starting to put out the salad bar for lunch.  We asked whether salad was included with the breakfast buffet and were told no, only the soup was included.  Say what?  Perhaps the waitress didn’t know what she was talking about.  After all, we heard her telling diners at a nearby table that she had worked at this truck stop for 41 years.  “It’s time for her to retire,” I told my wife.  And I believe she did just that.  Once she took our order and wrote up a sales slip for two buffets, we never saw her again.  We had to shanghai other staff members to refill our beverages.

If you follow this blog, you may recognize this truck stop as the place where I recently engaged in a Spanglish conversation with the nice (impatient) janitor lady through the stall door.  This time, there was no janitor in evidence, but the only stall available (unlike Coachella, at least there was one) had a broken lock.  I am pleased to report that only two gentlemen walked in on me while I was taking a crap.  The older one seemed slightly embarrassed and reached in to close the stall door behind him.  The younger guy just seemed pissed off.  Hey, this is not exactly my cup of tea either, young dude.  Do you think I enjoy showing off my fat butt to total strangers at a truck stop on the I-5?

We arrived safe and sound in our new home in northern California, just in time to gather with family and friends to celebrate my niece’s seventeenth birthday.  It only took us a day and a half to get both cars completely unloaded, although the house is still a mess of half-empty boxes and clothes strewn every which way.  But we were both very glad to finally get off the road.

For a few days, anyway.  Tuesday we head back to southern California.  Sometimes we feel like Sisyphus, rolling the boulder up and down the I-5.

 

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