Friday, July 09, 2010

Friday Challenge: Road Trip to Heck

This post is an entry into The Friday Challenge. This week's challenge: The Road Trip.

I. Your mission, should you choose to accept it...

"How would you like to take a photography trip? All by yourself?"

This was quite a surprise. I was actually speechless for a moment, and so shocked that I missed a chunk of the description. "...and he's going to sleep on our couch for a few weeks until he gets on his feet. I thought, just maybe, you'd like to take a day to drive out to meet him halfway, and bring me lots of nice pictures along the way."

"Are you sure we can do this? I mean, money is tight, and..."

"It's a three-day weekend," she said, "immediately followed by payday. We've got enough to get you to the Colorado Springs bus station, and he'll have enough to get you back. We can do this."

"I don't know..."

"Pack your camera," she said.

I packed my camera.

II. Choose your route very carefully.

My friend--I'll call him Paul, to protect him from vengeful commentary--lives near Flagstaff, but has family in Denver. He makes the trip several times a year. I told him what the plan was.

"Don't take Highway 40 across New Mexico," he said. "It's all under construction and will add a couple of hours to your trip. Take 70 across Utah instead, there's no construction there and the scenery is even better. The distance is about the same, too, about twelve hours total."

I trust Paul. If this is the best route for a photo journey, then it was the route for me.

Isn't there a fairly famous Klingon proverb that says, "Trust...but Verify...?"

III. Anyone want a good deal on a slightly used Mustang...?

Time to leave.

Checking the inventory, I had my laptop, several sets of batteries and camera chips; a quick store trip gave me a cooler full of road munchies. She handed me her "secret stash" of money just in case things got really tight. I napped for two or three hours after work, intending to drive through most of the night, and left home right around midnight.

Barely an hour out of Phoenix, I was passed by a speeding white Mustang. Here, the word "passed" is used in a generic sense to mean "nearly sideswiped and spun off into a ditch by an absolute lunatic who had no respect for the stripes down the middle of the road." But I kept my temper, and as my blood pressure returned to normal, I saw what looked like a small fireworks display up ahead.

The Mustang had taken the next exit, misjudged the turn, run off the road, and hit a lightpole. The pole was lying across the roof of the car, and the upper end was extending most of the way across the now-dark off-ramp.

I pulled over. I left my blinkers on, and went to see if everyone was okay, and found a couple wandering around in the dark. He was trying to talk to her, calm her down, while she shrieked and screamed in two languages. As I walked up, they went up over an embankment.

...and I was alone. With a dark, blocked, off-ramp.

I did the Good Samaritan thing. I stood near the pole, waving cars around it, wondering just how much of my trip time I was going to lose to this. The fourth car I waved at blinded me with the lights on top, and I explained everything to the cop inside; while we were talking, the couple from the Mustang drifted back into view.

They went to an ambulance, a wrecker was called, I went back to my car...and needed to ask the kindly policemen for a jump start, because an hour sitting idle with the blinkers going had killed the battery.

IV. Crossing the Border

Photo opportunities abounded as I neared the Utah border. The territory around Lake Pleasant is fascinating.

Just across the border, I found a place I can't recommend enough--a fenced off park that looks like nothing more than a pull-off beside the road. Two other cars were pulled off there, and one guy was getting camera gear out. That caught my attention. Something worth taking pictures of? I pulled off and grabbed my tripod.

I started shooting the hills near the highway, and was getting some okay shots. The guy with the camera saw me, and said "are you going to walk the whole trail? There are much better formations at the far end."
"Umm...trail...? I don't know, I'm on a schedule...maybe..."

He said "You don't know what you're missing," and headed back to his car.

I shot three more pictures, and a guy walking his dog went by. He also told me to walk the trail. Okay, I can take a hint. "How far?" I asked.

"Maybe a mile. Twenty minute walk, there and back, if you walk fast, plus time spent taking pictures." I threw the tripod over my shoulder, and started hiking.

I wish I had gone back to the car for spare filmchips and batteries.

It's called Paria Rim Rocks, and has some fantastic rock formations a mere two or three miles off the freeway. I killed at least an hour there. I could have blown several more hours if the batteries in the camera hadn't died--which reminded me that while the schedule was loose, it was still a schedule, and I needed to get back on the road.

The sights from the car all along that stretch of freeway were amazing, and it was all I could do to stay on the road and not waste the whole day wandering around with my camera.

Music was a problem. The radio stations in the middle of Utah must be fairly well scattered and remote, because all I could get was static. That was fixable, though. I propped open the lid if the laptop an inch, started up the DVD I had accidentally left in the drive, and cruised across Utah with the music from Fantasia blasting as loud as the little speakers could do.

The road stretched out ahead of me, and no matter how far I drove, it felt like I wasn't making any progress. I figured I should be nearing the Colorado border by now. I found this beautiful reflecting lake somewhere near that border, and stopped for a few pictures. Colorado was beautiful. I wondered to myself how far it would be to Denver...

...and something clicked. Paul had said "I drive from Flagstaff to Denver all the time, it's the same distance."

I didn't drive from Flagstaff. I drove from Phoenix. That's an extra two hours.

And I wasn't going to Denver, either. I was going to Colorado Springs. That's another two hours at the far end.

I was barely going to get there on time.

Here ends the visually-assisted portion of our tale.

V. Hell is a cold place...

I had told She-Who-Must-Be-Obeyed that I would stop and call often. We didn't have a cell phone back then, so it was a trip to a pay phone at every fill-up or leg-stretching exercise.

Something bizarre happened when I crossed over into Colorado. The pay phones refused to dial all the way through to Arizona. Multiple phones at multiple stops. I couldn't call and explain that my schedule was shot because of my directions. There was no point in turning back, and I continued on.

(Note for those who do not believe in psychic abilities: My wife sent an email to a friend at about this point. It said "I haven't heard from him for a while, but he probably got sidetracked by a big field of flowers, or pulled off to take a nap and overslept. Everything is fine, and I'll hear from him when he's ready.")

Something else strange happened in Colorado. The road started rising.

Okay, so, maybe this wasn't so strange. Perhaps a better word would be "slightly unexpected."

Paul had neglected to tell me that my route would go up...and up...and over Vail Pass.

The drive up, of course, was completely uneventful. I reached the top with just barely enough time to reach Colorado Springs by my deadline, and barely enough gas, too.

The first snowflake hit the windshield at the very top of Vail Pass.

Within half a mile, visibility was reduced to a minimum. And by "minimum", I mean "can just barely make out the two red dots that are the taillights of the semi truck fifty feet ahead of me." And with the drop in visibility, there was also a slight reduction in speed...and by "slight reduction," I mean "if I push the gas pedal another millimeter past 21 miles per hour, the back wheels will fishtail and I'll get to the bottom of this freaking mountain a hell of a lot faster than I would really prefer."

I passed a sign. A very terrifying sign, for a guy who had lived in Phoenix for the last seven years and central California for ten years before that. The sign said "Steep downhill switchback curves...Next Eighteen Miles."

I stayed fifty feet behind that eighteen wheeler, barely noticing that my last chances for arriving at the bus station in time were rapidly disappearing, because my full and total attention was being paid to those two tiny little red lights that marked the road in front of me.

Finally, the road leveled out. Finally, I could break my hands free of the steering wheel...which was nearly impossible, I had gripped the wheel so tightly that the muscles cramped. I took a deep breath, and realized that I had been holding it for the last half hour.

...and I'm sure the trucker in front of me heard me when I passed a sign that said "Steep uphill switchback curves...Next Thirteen Miles."

(Note for those who do not believe in psychic abilities: It was about this time that my wife called every police station and highway patrol number in Utah and Colorado to see if anyone had reported a blue Taurus with out-of-state plates overturned at the bottom of a snow-covered mountain somewhere.)

I put the last of my cash in the gas tank in Denver, after sitting in the gas station parking lot for ten minutes waiting for my heart rate to sound a bit slower than a Def Leppard drum solo. I followed snowplows into Colorado Springs, and wasted half an hour hunting for the bus station, and finally pulled in at three o'clock in the morning...a full five or six hours after his bus arrived. The bus station itself closed at midnight, and they unceremoniously kicked him out into the snow; when I arrived, he was a miniature snow-covered mountain made of dark green sleeping bag. Twenty minutes after he jumped in, we were pulled into a gas station and dropping the seats back for a nap.

VI. Deer in the taillights

We woke with the sun, and brushed six inches of snow off the car before setting out.

My first inclination was to point the car towards Phoenix and not stop until I hit the garage door. But She-Who-Must-Be-Obeyed had told me, specifically, that she wanted pictures of Garden of the Gods. That was the whole point of routing the trip through Colorado Springs in the first place. So, while he slept in the passenger seat, I took pictures of Garden of the Gods.

...and by "took pictures," I mean "I stepped out of the car in a Phoenix winter windbreaker, which was absolutely useless against a Colorado Springs spring snowstorm, giving me exactly seventy-two seconds to snap a picture before my hands started shaking so much my pictures would look like they were finger-painted, before jumping back into the car to spend ten minutes warming back up again."

I snapped twelve pictures before pointing the car towards Phoenix. But that twelfth picture became one of my wife's favorites.

That storm followed us. That blizzard stayed right behind us all the way out of Colorado Springs, becoming a huge dark thunderstorm down through New Mexico, and finally petering out as it tried to climb the mountains that ring Phoenix. And amazingly enough, though there was some construction, we didn't see any point along the way where the opposing traffic slowed down by more than a few seconds.

Once outside of Colorado, the phones started working again, and I was able to call and explain what happened. Though, when we finally pulled into the driveway, and she came running out of the house, I wasn't quite sure whether she was going to kiss me or kill me.

I'm not even sure she knew, either.