Sunday, May 22, 2011

Truck Stops & Penny Slots: An Ode to the American Road Trip

When you live on a small island there's no such thing as a road trip. Driving as far as you can around the two parts of Tahiti's figure eight takes four hours. One reason I wanted to move back to the States was to regain the sense of unlimited space that you can only have on a continent. Landlubbers who grow up with the amount of land Americans take for granted are pre-disposed to get a small dose "island fever" when dropped on a dot in the middle of the ocean. Some people get over it, I never did.

I was reminded of this last Friday when my good friend Dave came to town. Dave is one of the most interesting travelers I know. Growing up, his dad was a Greyhound mechanic so Dave had free bus tickets anywhere Greyhound went. So Dave would take off for weekends or sometimes weeks, riding buses to wherever he felt like going. He met crazy people, geniuses, pretty girls and wanderers and lived off hotdogs and potato chips. As he got older he learned to hop freight trains (he's the only person I know who has really done this) and once he got his own car he became a truck stop aficionado, driving around the States, always on the side of a blue-collar reality. By the time the two of us became friends in our early twenties he'd been to most US states, could tell you strange details of any Greyhound bus station in the nation and had the stinkiest, ugliest little brown car you ever saw ( it had a mouse living in it named it Rudyard).

So it's no surprise that my most memorable and real American road trip was with Dave - we just took off last minute with no idea where we were going.

We started in San Francisco, went north and our first stop was a truck stop near Vacaville. About 90 percent of the patrons in the vinyl-clad parking-lot-sized diner were men, big men in hefty plaid shirts with heaping plates of meat and potato-looking meals in front of them. It was so stereotypical it was nearly shocking. The waitresses had big hair and were probably in their late 40s, every booth was full of chatting big voices or silent loners bent over their pot roast and peas. No one took any notice of Dave and I as we took a booth and ate bacon, eggs and biscuits in gravy. It was like a scene in a movie.

We took similar stops farther north, through Truckee, where we stayed at a friend's place and played in the snow. The next day we went to Reno and Dave taught me the art of playing penny slots - play for pennies and get free booze from the cocktail waitresses who are there to get you drunk so you make bad decisions. I think we worked up to the nickle machines at some point but that's as loose with our cash as we got.

Reno was sharply cold and sadly empty. The half-blinking neon signs and desperate gamblers further painted the gloomy, seedy atmosphere. We ate all you can eat $1.99 buffets and tried to sleep in the stinky car but it was too cold - so we got cheap rooms at Circus Circus.

The next day we headed deeper into Nevada, past whole towns of trailer homes, flat streets with nothing higher than the electric poles and tawny, desolate mountains in the distance. We chugged up to Virginia City, went into a bar where a decent blues band were playing in the middle of the day then went to a cafe next door and drank sarsaparilla with views down the sandy mountain. Then we headed back over the Sierras to the pines and majesty of the forest. This was America, the same America you see in Tarantino flicks, the underbelly of vast spaces, un-glossed and untamed. It's something you can't find anywhere else in the world.

Years later I yearn to make another cheapskate road trip like the one I took with Dave but now I'm older, have a real job, two kids and a busy life so I'm not sure when I'll fit it in. But the road is still there, just waiting for a full tank of gas, and knowing that makes me happy.

Photo by Jasmine Humbert


  1. 1 thing Hawaii lacks, alas!

    Warm Aloha from Waikiki

    Comfort Spiral




  2. Great memories! Road trips with kids in tow are definitely a different experience. Not better or worse, just different. And I really enjoy seeing the sites through their eyes. They always see things I don't!
    --Traci from the "Go BIG or Go Home" blog

  3. Great post! Nice reminder of what we have right here in the States, when I often want to travel outside of them. Took me a while to have any desire to vacation within the U.S. but the Americana that you speak of is one of the appeals. I can totally relate to the movie scene feel that makes traveling (& for me - photography) so exciting & creative! My gramps used to jump trains to go on adventures when he was a teenager. I remember his great stories fondly. - Tara, Tara Cuccia Photography



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