Syncopated Family Travel: The Return Home on Route 66

Story by Anthony Mathenia Photos by Rebekah Mathenia 

Syncopated: Displace the beats or accents in so that strong beats become weak and vice versa

syncopated_blueswallowThe return home from a trip always presents a share of mixed feelings.  On some level there is the disappointment that the excitement of new terrain is coming to an end.  On the flip side there is that draw to that familiar setting, that place of comfort, home.  I am Dorothy standing in the sparkling Emerald City of wonder, clacking my ruby heels together and longing for the black and white Kansas farm, even if it is dirty and smells like pig shit.

We plot our return through the American Southwest; venerable Route 66 is our road home.   It whips and winds through the desolate landscapes and broken towns in Arizona and New Mexico.  Every dot on the map haunts with past ghosts.  It’s like going through a nursing home and looking at the fragile skeletons.  In their dim eyes you can just catch glimmers of past lives full of adventure and glory.

syncopated_wigwamEach turn of the mother road holds shuttered motels forever locked at “no vacancy”.  In those now boarded up rooms, men and women once held each other with the thrill of new love throbbing through their wide open veins.  The neon is burned out with promises made to be broken.  Nothing last forever.  Progress is a motherfucking Interstate ripping through every good intention with the thrill of the open road.  Progress is going from point A to point B in a linear fuck you at 70 miles per hour.  It’s the destination that is important, not the landscape that is  blurring in the side gaze — definitely not the past vanishing behind. Progress is a streamlined sonofabitch.

This leg of the trip is made more poignant with the recent visit to Disney’s Carsland fresh in memory.  The film Cars was based on director John Lasseter’s own family road trip over this asphalt time machine.  As we traverse through the towns and places that inspired fictional Radiator Springs, I have a new appreciation for what I had considered one of Pixar’s lesser endeavors.  Stripped from the Hollywood trappings it is a sentimental lament to what was left behind.

syncopated_me_writing_windowIn Tucumcari, New Mexico, we check into the Historic Route 66 motel.   It doesn’t have the brilliant neon of the Blue Swallow down the road, but it makes up with it in mid-century modern style.   Parked outside is a gleaming black Cadillac.  The bright lobby inside looks like it could double as a Mad Men set.   The standout feature is a front desk counter made out of petrified wood. As we settle down, Cars happens to be playing on the television.  The Divine is really good at serving up these little coincidences to serve as signs telling our sub-conscience to wake the fuck up and pay attention.  The rooms along the motel stretch have curtain wall windows, acting as a looking glass for those who want to watch the world drive by: coming, going, always moving.

syncopated_seligman_carsRoad trips like these offer a neutral space to gaze out of life’s window.  This is us at our most conflicted: forever seeking the new, exciting future and longing for the simplicity of the past.  We want the shiny, we have a soft spot for the rusty and tarnished. We crave technicolor but long for black and white. This is our burden to bare as humans who have the sense to be able to tell past from present, to plot and plan, to remember yesterday, and hope for tomorrow. This is our shared journey through space and time.

Syncopated Family Travel – Bryce Canyon Utah

Family hiking in Utah - BryceAs we near the end of our first week, traveling takes on a comfortable rhythm. Like someone training for a marathon, we grow accustomed to the long miles between stops. Packing and unpacking the car each night becomes a precise clockwork. Miles rack up and scenery swaps out again and again. Every few hours we change landscape and it’s always so new. The grass in this place is not the same as the grass in that place: the rocks, the water, all different. Hell, even the sky seems different, by nature or trick of the traveler’s eye, I’m not certain.

As we enter Utah, Salt Lake City brings a momentary rush of heavy traffic, but it quickly dissipates moving further south. A lovely orange waste flashes by our car windows; the outside air is a convection oven. Utah is a dusty Eden with so many natural wonders, it is difficult to narrow down the list to a couple of stops before we press further west to California. Our travel takes us first to the southern edge of Utah. Here Red Canyon gives us an introduction to what we can find further at Bryce Canyon National Park. The road winds through interesting red limestone formations rising above rugged ponderosa pine trees. This place is familiar, if only because the Disney Imagineers borrowed the look of the eroded spires, called hoodoos, for their popular Big Thunder Mountain roller coaster.

Family hiking in Utah - BryceThe majority of travelers to Bryce tend to flock to Ruby’s Inn, a hotel that has been serving travelers for decades. It is a large complex just outside the gates to the national park, offering not just lodging, but shopping, dining, travel activities, and, of course, requisite taffy and fudge. We forgo the crowds and instead set down for the night in nearby Tropic, a small, dusty town of approximately five-hundred. We call ahead to notify the owners of Bybee’s Steppingstone Motel that we might not make it before their front desk closes for the night.

“No problem,” the friendly innkeeper says. “We’ll just leave the door to your room open and the key on the bed.”

Family hiking in Utah - BryceTropic seems to be the rare kind of place where a person can leave their doors unlocked without concern of wandering burglars or serial killers. It’s quaint and rough, just a simple stretch of a few homes, some hotels, a few restaurants, and a couple of shops set against a backdrop of grey cliffs. The Steppingstone houses eight charming, if small, rooms, uniquely decorated with homey touches like patchwork quilts on the beds. The grounds are nicely manicured featuring a rare green lawn, taking parched drinks from a flickering garden sprinkler. By the garden a traveler sits on a bench reading Camus. With such a tight schedule, I regret that I don’t have the leisure to do the same.

Family hiking in Utah - BryceOur first stop on our tour of the area is Mossy Cave Trail, a short, scenic walk situated between Tropic and Bryce Canyon proper. Through here the rippling Tropic ditch canal was carved through the arid land by farmers in 1892 to provide irrigation for crops. Along our walk we delight to view small waterfalls along the creek and above hoodoos and windows carved in sandstone. A special treat are the many colorful wildflowers that dot the landscape.

Next we take in some of the scenic outlooks of Bryce Canyon Family hiking in Utah - BryceNational Park, culminating in a stop at Sunset Point. The overlook is poorly named. Gazing out at the amphitheater positions our back toward the west, so the sun slides down, out of sight behind us. However, the diminishing evening light is supposed to make interesting shadows across the amphitheater. At the rim we join a long line of people poised with cameras gazing out at cliff faces and spires that give the impression of walls and buttresses of an alien castle. To our right, the entrance to the Navajo Loop trail catches our attention as it winds down into the amphitheater funneling into a narrow slip of rock. The lure of adventure beckons and we descend down the switchbacks and pass through a dim hallway of rock, named Wall Street. It empties out to an opening where spindly Douglas fir trees stretch upward in search of rare sunlight from the sky above.

Family hiking in Utah - BryceBy the time we reach the bottom, those inching shadows have covered the floor with deep, dense black. A terrible truth sets down upon us: we must somehow get back to the rim in the dark. Unfortunately for us, this particular trail boasts one of the most extreme elevation changes at Bryce. It’s a daunting five-hundred twenty-one feet back to the top. Climbing is a weary chore. Each step is a painful reminder of the overall lack of activity that dominates my normal life. Each labored breath mocks all those unfulfilled New Year’s promises to “eat better”, “exercise more,” “walk to the kitchen to get a beer instead of shouting at the child to do it.” Speaking of the child, she casually skips up the switchbacks, texting on her cellphone. She is soon out of sight, leaving her mother and me in the black depths of Tartarus.

We press on, sweat-soaked, bones creaking, bodies aching. Stopping. Resting. Resting. Giving up and making suicide pacts through punctuated breaths. Finally, we make it to the top.

“Geez, what took you so long,” snips my daughter as we arise like Lazarus from the pit.

The bed back at the Steppingstone is an exquisite comfort, though hard asphalt in a rat-ridden back alley would do as nicely after such a grueling workout. Too soon it is morning. With sore muscles we walk to nearby Clarke’s restaurant for breakfast. It’s good and filling and some European tourists provide unexpected entertainment as they navigate the puzzle of pancakes, butter and syrup. They quickly figure it out with great enthusiasm. Rested, sort-of, fed, definitely, we pack up the car once again, quickly, and set out eagerly to explore more of what Utah has to offer.

Syncopated Family Travel: Idaho Sucks

A travel column by Anthony Mathenia

Syncopated: Displace the beats or accents in so that strong beats become weak and vice versa

This is what passes for Art in Boise

No offense, but Idaho is a shithole. This is no mere opinion based on my brief run-in with the gem state, but it has been thoroughly fact-checked and confirmed on Urban Dictionary. We may just be spoiled from the beautiful vistas we have seen over the last few days: the rugged canyons of the Badlands, the rolling grasslands of South Dakota, the tree covered mountains of Wyoming, the colorful thermals of Yellowstone. There may be beautiful places in Idaho, but we see none of them as we drive south down the I-15. It is all farms and factories belching smoke.

The only things worth looking at are the Teton Mountains in the east beyond the vast plains of dirty nothing.

Suck my cock Idaho
Idaho sucks Cock

Our next destination is Bryce Canyon in Utah, but first we must slog through Idaho. When headlights flip on and yawns start chaining around the car, an unsettling truth weighs in: we may have to stay the night in this forsaken land. We go as far as Idaho Falls before admitting defeat and pulling off the Interstate. We should be looking for a place to stay, but with the cooler running low, we take the opportunity to restock at a Super Walmart just off the exit.

Here, the universal truth is confirmed: no matter where you travel, the people of Walmart stay the same. A case in point is a lady with an undersized silver t-shirt that makes her look like a pink pork roast wrapped in tin foil. “Sweet Thang,” proclaims the ass of her sweatpants, wide like a billboard. When you shop at Walmart, you take care to dress your very best, and I fit right in with my matted hair, scraggly travel beard, and rumpled “Pawn Star” t-shirt.

Nevertheless, there is something comforting about this little slice of American redneck heaven. As we purchase sandwich goods and beer, I can close my eyes like Dorothy Gail (also from a shitty state) and intone, “There’s no place like home.”

Our shopping complete, we look for a place to sleep. When you stay at a new hotel every night, you are gambling on things like comfort and safety. So far our choices have proved positive, but Idaho Falls is home to the Guesthouse Inn and Suites. It starts out well, with the friendly hotel clerk informing us that they have one nonsmoking room left. We eagerly snatch up the moderately priced room, believing that the hotel roulette wheel is once again being kind to us. Little do we know.

Taking our keycard, we drive around to the back of the building, where it appears that the black asphalt parking lot serves as an unofficial hotel lounge of sorts. Small groups of rough-looking men are milling about, flicking cigarettes and draining bottles of cheap beer. As I park, I look up to a second floor window, where a man in Homeless Activity Area Idaho Falls ccImage by Waterarchives on Flickra stained wifebeater is gazing down at us with a piercing stare straight out of a slasher flick. We should turn around, but it is late and it is only one night. That’s what door locks are for, I think as we haul our luggage to the back entrance, only to find that the security lock is broken.

At the door, a bald, heavily tattooed man pushes by us en route to one of the little parking lot parties. We drag our luggage up some stairs to a dimly lit hallway, which is flanked by a couple of worn cowboys.

“I fucked up that sonofabitch real good,” drawls one of the dusty men, sporting a mighty handlebar mustache.

As we squeeze past, he cracks his tattooed knuckles. Hard eyes follow the caravan as we move deeper toward our room number. Once there, it takes a few panicked swipes of my keycard before the door lock clicks open, allowing us entry. The second we open the door, we are smacked with a cloud of cigarette odor wafting out of our “nonsmoking” room. Perhaps there has been a mistake.

But like firefighters, we brave the smoke and push into the room, throwing the lock behind us. While my wife tucks her face into her shirt, I pick up the phone to call the front desk.

“Hello,” a pleasant voice on the other end of the line greets me.

“Hello, we just checked in and we are supposed to have a nonsmoking room, but this room reeks of cigarette smoke.”

“That’s a nonsmoking room; perhaps the smell is from a room down the hall.”

“I don’t see how. The hallway didn’t stink.” Perhaps this smoke passes through walls, Casper style? “There’s something else. The television is missing.” I gaze down at the unhooked coax cable limply hanging across the dresser.

a hard eyed serial killerMomentary silence at the other end of the line. “The room was just deep cleaned,” the clerk offers, not really explaining why the television is missing. “Would you like us to send up some air fresheners?”

My daughter starts coughing like a sixty-year-old with a two-pack a day habit.

“I think maybe we’ll just try some place else,” I say.

Moments later, we again move back to our car, past the hard eyes of cowboys, truckers, and potential serial killers. “What a shithole,” I say, as we cruise further down the Interstate.

Utah – Beautiful Mormon State but I Need a Drink

Story and Photos by Anthony Mathenia – Every Tuesday!

Syncopated: Displace the beats or accents in so that strong beats become weak and vice versa

Zion National Park, Utah

Utah is Mormon country; that much is true. At each stop, we find racks of promotional cards for the Church of Latter Day Saints bearing compassionate paintings of Jesus Christ and photographs of happy, smiling Mormon families. Store counters hold stacks of complimentary copies of the Book of Mormon in a myriad of language. I’m also unable to find a decent drink. Fortunately, Utah has natural beauty in abundance. It’s not a gin and tonic, but it is soothing in its own way.

Zion CanyonsOur next stop as we work our way west to California, is Zion National Park, in southwest Utah. Like much of Utah, the park is religiously themed. The name “Zion”, meaning place of refuge, was bestowed upon the canyon by Mormon pioneers. Other park features like Mount Moroni, evoke the land’s Mormon heritage.

As we approach, the black asphalt winds around grey formations that are laced with fine lines that ebb and flow with ancient wind. They give the impression of great hornets nests rising up over patches of Utah juniper and pinyon pine trees. To get to the national park we pass through the Zion Mount Carmel Tunnel. At just over one mile in length it was once the longest tunnel in the United States. Windows cut into the tunnel give glimpses of sheer rock cliffs rising up over patches of trees.

Stream in ZionAt the park welcome center we luck out to find a parking space in the densely crowded lot.  During peak visiting times, vehicle traffic within the park is prohibited.  Instead visitors board shuttles that make regular stops throughout the park. Each stop offers visitors several hikes through the splendors of the national park. Zion is a thrill park for danger seekers. The Angels Landing trail takes hikers along a narrow rock fin over 5,700 feet in the air. For those who are not deterred by the dizzying drop offs on either side, Angels Landing offers splendid panoramic views of the rich landscape. Closer to the ground, the Zion Narrows trail plunges hikers into the Virgin River, weaving through a deep canyon gorge.  Rushing water and slippery rock make this a chilly challenge to all but the fleet footed.
Zion National ParkStill recovering from our spirit breaking hike from bottom to top of Bryce Canyon, we opt for some of the lesser, handicapped accessible, trails at Zion. We follow the Narrows trail as far as the gently sloping paved path ends and the river disappears behind perpendicular canyon walls. There a frantic hiker returns to report to a park ranger, that one of his group has a twisted ankle miles up river in the back country. With evening approaching, it is doubtful a rescue can be mounted until morning. It will be a long painful night for the unfortunate hiker.

The Emerald Pools Trails offer a relatively easy going walk shaded by cottonwoods and boxelders leading to a tall alcove. Overhead waterfalls cascade into the namesake green pool below. The Weeping Rock trail is a bit steep, but short, at only a mile round trip. There, water drains through an overhead arch of Navajo sandstone sprinkling out in a gentle rain. For such a short walk, the view is spectacular. Through the weeping mist we look above a canopy of green at the Great White Throne and parts of Zion Canyon.

Zion National ParkZion has so much more to offer, but limited time urges us onward toward California.  There my personal holy mecca awaits: Disneyland USA. I intend to return to Zion someday, but only after I’m physically fit enough for a vertigo inducing trek across Angels Landing or to ford the Virgin river in a descent into the Zion Narrows.

We make one last stop in Utah, an overnight at the Chalet Motel in St. George, just miles from the Nevada border. At only $45 a night it represents the best value we have enjoyed on our trip. The room is well furnished and immaculately maintained. While we relax, my daughter busies herself by reading the Book of Mormon that is placed in the drawer next to the standard Gideon King James. “Please do not remove, ask for your complimentary copy at the front desk,” encourages a sign placed in the drawer.  “Can I get a copy?” asks my daughter.

The next morning I go to the front desk to ask. The elderly motel owner’s face lights up with joy at my request. She disappears into the back, while I busy myself looking at a large painting of Jesus and promotional pamphlets for area attractions.  Shortly, she returns with a new copy in hand. “I just know this is the truth,” she says as she presents the book to us. She feeds on our assumed interest to point out various activities in town.  There is a historical reenactment of Brigham Young, one of the founders of the Church of Latter Day Saints. “The actor really captures him”, she informs me with a smile. Or perhaps we would enjoy taking the tour of the local temple? She nicely explains that we won’t be able to get into the temple proper being heathens, but the grounds are beautifully attended to.

I thank her and bid her farewell. I have no interest in converting. I really don’t mind crazy conspiracies and weird theologies; but, I’ve got no love for any religion that practices shunning and breaks up families. That, and it would really be a sin to forgo the pleasures of a nice gin and tonic.

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