Blythe, Arizona – Here I was, approaching this tiny town. Blythe is as far east in California as can be. It was Day 5 of my solo transcontinental ride home to Connecticut. The sun was setting on one of my finest days so far as I approached Blythe on I-10—my destination for this day. I saw it coming up. It’s what I call a ”one-story town.” I didn’t spot one building any higher than that.
I kept right on at 60 miles an hour with all the other traffic, waiting for the main exit to Blythe to announce itself. Surprise! I found myself suddenly crossing the Colorado River—which is a modest stream here—and confronting a big sign, “Welcome To Arizona!” What?!
I had overshot Blythe. That’s how small it is.
It was another mistake, plain and simple. Mistakes, errors, call them whatever you like, are inevitable in the kind of travel I’m doing. I experience them every day. I don’t go nuts over them any more. The only solution is to “Grin and Bear It!” Plus, “Maybe something good will come of this!”
Oh, I know what you smarties are thinking. “John, if you had GPS, this would never have happened.”
Well, I do have it. Brand-new, too. A Gamin Novi 401. Finally I got it hooked up and going. But it’s not calibrated right. That anonymous tenor persists in giving me one wrong direction after another. I’ve unhooked the darn thing. I’m hoping to run into a geek soon who will get it going right for me.
Besides, for these many decades of doing nutty trips like this, I’ve done fine with my trusty road atlas. This mistake was all Blythe’s fault! They should have a big sign up at the exit, “Stop! This Is Blythe!”
My intention was to “camp” in Blythe for the night. My definition of “camping” in my old age is sleeping in my van and eating most of my meals in it.
One reason I chose Blythe is there’s a 24-hour Walmart here. I’ve camped at a Walmart every night on this trip so far. It’s perfect.
This way, I don’t have to drive miles out of my way to find a campground, then drive miles back in the morning. Walmart is safe! And so convenient. Its 24-hour superstores—that’s what they usually are–offer everything I can possibly spend money on except gas. Plus clean bathrooms … and Walmart is free … and welcoming!
I wish they had been around on all those big past trips I’ve taken. And the many trips I took my wife and kids on.
I’ll be delighted if I can find a Walmart every single night on my 3,500-mile route home. We now have 3,000 Walmart super-centers in the U.S., which never close. I stand a pretty good chance.
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As usual this trip isn’t a picnic. It’s hard work. I didn’t expect it to be easy. It never is. It keeps me busy from early morn till 10 or 11 p.m. With naps as needed, I admit. You’d be surprised at everything that’s required to do it right.
So far my ride is as good as I hoped it would be. I love the challenge of it. And I enjoy its many rewards. One is running into interesting folks. So far. I’ve struck it lucky again … and this is one of my major goals. And not a bad apple yet.
Another is to see—really, really see, with my own eyes—how our country is doing and changing. And experiencing the sights, natural and man made, at times beautiful and inspiring, at times ugly and regrettable, and too often very dull and skip-able.
Important to remind you I’m driving an 11-year-old van with more than 180.000 miles on it. Yes, that’s right, 180,000 plus. She’s running like a top. I feel it’s just broken in. Honest! Maybe I’m setting myself up for a gigantic disappointment. But it couldn’t be sweeter running. I’m delighted.
It’s a Ford seven-passenger Econoline van. The model name is Chateau, which is—maybe was–Ford’s top of the line in vans. It’s loaded with amenities, some I love. The tinted windows (people can’t see in). The comfortable seats. The electric this and that. Other features, too.
My first little camper years ago—a VW “bus”— was Dandelion. That’s what I dubbed her. She was that color of beautiful yellow. Notice, I said “she.” After all, if we can give our boats feminine monickers, why can’t I do it for my lovely camper?
I deliberated and finally settled on Chateau as the name for this one. It’s so appropriate. This really is a wonderful and lovely little chateau, on four wheels, of course. So from now on Chateau is “she,” too. My poetic license! You’ll get used to it fast.
She does have a few bugs. The worst is the obstacle course I face to get from my driver’s seat to the back. You have to be as agile as a monkey, but I’m no monkey. And there’s no way to fix that.
The next is that I can’t stand in her. I may get home permanently hunched over. It’s made me think of the advantages of being a midget.
She has six ceiling lights. I think if I go over a bump, they all go on. Sometimes even when I’m stopped for a while. On my second day I had a dead battery. Not a promising start. But I have a AAA Classic membership—they’ll tow me up to 100 miles. A tech guy showed up in 35 minutes, gave me a jump, and pointed out the troublesome lights. Still they go on. I’m thinking of duck-taping them OFF.
I’m allowed only four road calls a year, and my year is just starting. On my next night at Walmart, I bought jumper cables. Cheap insurance.
I have two keys to Chateau. They look identical. One works much better than the other. The bad one will not open the doors every time. Makes me very nervous. I’m afraid of locking the good key inside, and what then? Methinks I need see a locksmith.
It takes a mighty flick of my wrist with the ignition key to start the engine. Sometimes I have to flick hard twice, even three times. If this keeps up, I’ll be buying a brace for my wrist soon. Walmart stocks those, too.
I told you in my previous report she has a fancy, super-sophisticated entertainment system. Even a TV screen in the ceiling in back to watch DVDs. The system included GPS, too. But I discovered it was dead and the dealer that sold me Chateau, FamVans, gave me that portable Gain Navi instrument.
Well, now I find that the CD player is broken, too. So now I can’t enjoy the dozen music CDs I brought along. Got to do something about this, too.
The radio is fine. But it’s a pain to search and search and not find a station I really enjoy. Silence is golden.
Turns our that Chateau’s tires are oversize. If I try a tight turn left or right, the front tires rub on the body. Not good! So tight turns are impossible. Sometimes I can turn around 180 degrees only with two or three tries. You wouldn’t like that, either.
She gulps gasoline like a monster. California is a $4-a-gallon gas state. Maybe a few cents over, a few cents under here or there. At one stop high in the San Gabriel Mountains on Day 2, $4.14! I find that very painful.
I’m stopping for refills whenever I need $40 worth or so. That happens more often than I thought it would. Why stop so often? I like frequent breaks. And I try to work in as much exercise as I can . It’s a big step up into Chateau, and a big step down.
Besides, If I bought a maximum fill, the tab would be well over $100, and that makes me shudder. Just consider, I remember a gas war when the price dropped to 17.9 cents a gallon! I’d like a price war like that at least once a week Sob! Such price wars are history. How come?
But I’m delighted with the many changes and improvements I made to convert her into a mini camper. My bunk with the foam mattress. The clothes hooks I screwed in. The drawers and shelves I put in. How I planned the whole interior lay-out. he whole list of little things I’ve done. Chateau is tiny, but wonderfully efficient and comfy.
I’m still making changes every day. One little improvement after another. I call them my Robinson Crusoe moments. Remember how shipwrecked Robinson used his wits to solve all kinds of problems and make his shipwreck life easier? Well, that’s me in Chateau. Each Robinson Crusoe moment, as simple as it is, gives me a glow of pleasure.
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Here are some of the highlights of my trip so far. I’ll sketch them out briefly. I found them so interesting that I hope to write them up for you one by one as I go along. Patience, please.
Day 1. A symposium on three “isms” that I attended at Claremont-Lincoln School of Theology in Claremont, Calif. The three are Buddhism, Sikkism, and Janism. The Jainism segment was the one that drew me. It’s a strange and impressive religion in India. I am not a Jain, but I’ve had close Jain friends for 30 years and I’ve learned abut it through them.
Day 2. My day resting and exploring Claremont. What a charming and delightful small community. With seven colleges, mind you. To me it’s THE small town to live in.
Day 3. My ride high up into the awesome San Gabriel Mountains for a white-knuckle ride along its famous Rim of the World road. But so exciting, too. A ride I won’t forget soon.
Day 4. My visit to Palm Springs, the man-made oasis out in the desert a couple of hours east of L.A. Palm Springs is a small place but who hasn’t heard of it? So many movie stars have bought fancy second homes there. I’ve been to Palm Springs several times, thanks to Annabelle. I much prefer the newer small communities that have sprung up around Palm Springs.
Day 5. As you know by now, I think, I’m not fond of Interstate Highways. Of course I appreciate their practicality. They’re great to get somewhere fast. But they bypass so many interesting things and they are so dull. I much prefer the far more interesting lesser roads. I’ve been lucky at finding some dandy ones. But I got lost! Three times …
Day 6. How I find myself in tiny Mecca. Strange name for a town here in California. A town with a heavy population of Mexicans. How I’m impressed by them. And the library that serves them and the others in Mecca as well, of course.
Day 7. I knew that the next 100 miles to Blythe would be a tedious and taxing ride. But I managed to find an alternate route and then went and messed it up again. But I got some nice rewards.
As always, I’ve met some interesting people along the way. Including some truly Good Samaritans. How lucky I’ve been. I can’t wait to tell you about some of them.
I’ve wondered whether I’ve become too old to enjoy this kind of travel. I’ve done a lot of it over the years and it’s been so much fun. Well, I have good news. It’s hard. Yes, it is. No denying that. But so far I am rejoicing. It is shaping up as the grand adventure I hoped for.
Long ago I realized that Mark Twain was right. That smart guy is the one who said that often it is better to travel than to arrive. My whole point is not just to get home. It’s to squeeze in as much pleasure out of every mile as I can. And it’s working out that way.
Know what? So far I’ve been on the road seven days and have traveled barely 500 miles. That’s very little–only about one-seventh of the mileage I expect to run up before I roll into Deep River. And the best parts of the route are still ahead.
So I’ve found myself wondering, When the heck will I finally be getting home?! Labor Day? Thanksgiving? Christmas? I leave it all to Serendipity …
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A Post Script. Just a few days ago I turned 84. Yes, 84. Which means that was tip-toeing into my 85th year on Earth!!!
You have no idea how surprised I am to have made it this far.
I remember when I was 8 or 9 I wasn’t doing well and my mother had our family doctor come to the house and examine me.
I remember how he finally put his stethoscope back in his black bag and looked at my mom and said, “Madame, I am sad to tell you I don’t think this little boy will live to see his 30th birthday.”
Gosh, did he shake her up! And my father when he came home! As for me, 30 seemed a long, long time away.
Gosh, have I fooled him!
I’m going to be alone on the road for this birthday. Not a problem. I’m just looking forward to another nice day, my eyes filling, I’m sure, with one wonderful sight after another, as always. It won’t be perfect. Nothing ever is. But it will be great.
I don’t need a birthday cake. I’d be embarrassed to try to blow out all those candles. How huge a cake would it take to hold them all?
Besides, I know I’ve got a lot of people cheering for me. How lucky I am! How really lucky!
Editor’s Note: John Guy LaPlante is a veteran writer and journalist. His award-winning columns and articles were previously published in the Main Street News. He is the author of two books, “Around the World at 75. Alone! Dammit!” and “Asia in 80 Days. Oops, 83! Dammit!” He completed his service as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Ukraine in early 2010 after a 27-month tour of duty. John always welcomes comments on his articles. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org