King of the Road: An Englishman on Route 50 – Jonathan Sawday


This summer, Jonathan Sawday, an Englishman living in St. Louis, MO, decided to attend a party in San Francisco. He chose to drive there (and back) on his own. Here’s how the trip panned out:

July 6, 2015 – St. Louis Missouri

Will be leaving STL for SF on Wednesday, driving (solo) MO to CA: I. 70, US 50 (“America’s loneliest road” — is it still I wonder?), and I. 80. Google maps says 2,000 miles (give or take the odd hundred). Will be taking sunglasses, ciggies, a bottle of Maker’s Mark, and my entire collection of Led Zeppelin CDs. In other words well prepared….

July 8, 2015 – Goodland Kansas

… is in the small town of Goodland, Kansas, just 17 miles from the Colorado State Line, where he is putting up for the night (the last room at the inn, or at any rate the somewhat fly-blown Super 8). A hellish drive across Missoura (I.70) in thunder storms and driving rain. Miraculously the weather lifted as I entered the great state of Kansas. 666 (really!) miles done, 1400 to go. This party had better be good.

July 9, 2015 – Grand Junction Colorado

Fear and Loathing in Colorado:

So it was all going swimmingly, 400 plus miles down by lunch; a fabulous drive up, over, and through the Rockies at 11,000 feet, then down to the desert. Fifteen miles west of Grand Junction CO, heading west on the never-ending I.70, a suspicious rumble and lurch from the car. Blow out!

Here I am, 5 hours later holed up in the worst motel in Grand Junction, having made a whole raft of new friend at Discount Tires, including Thomas, my quasi psychotic AAA tow guy (why do I always end up being towed, either by land or by sea?) who is also a Vegas-based repo man, with a penchant for extreme violence and serious firearms issues.

Still I was lucky. Had it happened 20 or 30 miles further west I’d have been alone in the desert with no phone signal.

I reckon I’m now 5-600 miles behind schedule. Still nearly a thousand miles to go to the party in SF! Tomorrow is going to need to be full-on maximum effort, at warp-factor 9.

Will he make it? We shall see.

July 10, 2015 – Austin Nevada

After the nerves and frustration of Grand Junction, CO, and having overslept I didn’t get on the road till 9.30AM or so. Could I do 1000 miles in one day?

The answer was no. When I accidentally pressed the gas meaning to press the brake I realized it was time to stop, just a frustrating 390 miles short of SF.

US Highway 50 is sublime; a landscape such as no other I have ever seen in the US. Vast barren bowls 50 or so miles wide, separated by a series of towering mountain ranges. Sometimes I am the only car on the road for twenty or thirty miles at a stretch.

A curious somatic phenomenon I noticed in the Rockies and finally understood today. At intervals, I would become overwhelmed by a feeling of dread, futility, and despair. It was numbingly intense. The feeling would last perhaps 10 or 15 minutes and then vanish. After the 3rd or 4th such “event” I realized that they coincided precisely with altitude: the car’s GPS elevation would signal that at 7000 + feet, my morale would plunge. The answer was to start breathing deeply and slowly above this altitude. Presumably, I am responding to the rapid shifts in elevation between 5000 and 10000 feet (sometimes 2 or 3 such rapid descents and ascents in an hour).

Or am I just losing my marbles? Anyone else experience this in the far West?

The trip to attend the party rolls on!

July 10, 2015 – Austin Nevada

… is just back from eating in the most bizarre bar in America. The photo shows the “International Hotel” on Main St. Austin. This place is run by a half-pissed mad old man, who (it turned out) is a Serb, and who spends most of his time screaming at the TV (his particular hatred is reserved for “ass-fuckers” (there was a piece on the news about gay marriage). He left Yugoslavia in 1961, and wanted to impress on me (having guessed I was British) that sooner or later the US and England would have to kill all the Muslims. I started to enjoy myself, pointing out some of the short-comings of Marshall Tito, and inquiring whether he was a still a communist or just a fascist, and perhaps he wasn’t really Serbian but Croatian. I could see he liked that. Or at least he liked being engaged.

Meanwhile two unbelievably slatternly women (I’m sorry that it sounds sexist, but there is simply no other word to describe their personal squalor) who may or may not have been related to the mad old man, enjoyed telling me that every item that I fancied on the menu was unavailable. This was clearly amusing them no end. Eventually they served me with a bowl of chili and cornbread.

It was delicious.

I spent my time praising their chili which clearly enraged them. As they became more and more surly, so I became more effusively polite. I was the only diner. The check was in front of me before the chilli.

Retiring into the “bar” (more the mad old man’s front room) two young lads were playing pool. “They do a great hamburger here,” I was told “but I guess they wouldn’t serve you that…” .

I was asked where I was going: “San Francisco” I replied. Hoots of scorn. “Ass-fuckers” from the mad old man. “Actually,” I said “I’m going to a party full of ass-fuckers. You’d like it, I think.” Speechlessness.

A middle aged gent came in. Clearly not a local. He nervously inquired about the possibility of food.

“Kitchen closes at 8.00” he was told. It was two minutes after eight. The next town is 60 miles down the road. He left.

I’m having a whale of a time. I think the whole place is a put on, and that, like “The Truman Show” I’m being inducted into a weird confected reality. After I left, I’m sure they all settled down with copies of last week’s NYRB and began to chuckle…

The photo shows the worst bar in America and also my charmingly comfortable cabin in The Lincoln Motel, which is just opposite.

July 11, 2015 – Austin Nevada

In my previous post about the worst bar in America in the small town of Austin, Nevada, I made comments which (now that I know more) I slightly regret.

“Tout comprendre c’est tout pardonner.”

So after I had recovered from the ass-fucking-hating mad old man and the slatternly women I was invited to have a drink by the motel’s manager, Julie, and her (kind of, sort of, maybe) partner, Jim, and a young man called Alex. We sat on the stoop, under the stars till 3.00AM drinking wine (them) and bourbon (me). And gradually they unfolded their lives, or a portion of them. Much of what they said it would be wrong to record, since they were speaking off the cuff. But I was gripped by the sense of the lives they were living.

Alex is a troubled soul. Ex-USMC, he had grown hateful of the way he had been asked to fight for his country in Afghanistan. He left the corps, and decided to hitch around America, but he ended up in the Nevada basin, where he was struggling with drink, and had been “adopted” by Julie, the manager of the motel, and Jim. He was (he told me) off the grid — no SS card, driver’s license, tax id. His dog had just been killed on the highway, and he was bedsides himself with grief.

Julie is a kind, grandmotherly (she has eleven grandchildren) strikingly handsome woman. She prided herself on the way she ran the motel (and she should). She worries about her health, her teeth (everyone in the town has crap teeth, so I felt right at home), her eyes. It is 100 miles to the nearest grocery store and she often can’t get hold of the fresh fruit and produce which she craves. She is a devout Christian.

She said to me:

“When you came in… you looked kinda fucked. Hands shaking. Couldn’t remember your license plate. Every one arrives here like that. My job is to sort them out, calm them down, and get them back on the road…”.

Jim was intriguing. He introduced himself as “Brother Jim.” He’s a mechanic, tall, stooped, and gangling, aged about 50 or so (he looks a lot older than that). He is also a pastor with the local Southern Baptists. He asked me about my faith, to which I replied that I was either blessed or cursed in having none. He smiled at that. We talked theology. He has very little time for God, in a conventional sense, but is driven by the Spirit. As we talked it became apparent to me that he had worked out a personal theology, which explained (and gave meaning) to his (not uneventful) life –. It is a deeply inward credo, in which your life is lived, reflectively, backwards, with each event being slotted into the master-plan which the Spirit has led you to. There was no sense of salvation or redemption. But also little sense of agency.

At some point I said: “Jim, it sounds to me like you’re not really a Christian anymore.” To which he agreed. “Maybe, I’m not.” Jim spends a lot of time alone, driving his truck backwards and forwards across the desert to mend machinery, and he spends a lot of time on his own thinking. I asked if he studied the scriptures, and which were his favorite passages. He quietly reprimanded me: “I read them, don’t study them.”

Talking with Jim I kept thinking of radical sects in the 17th-century. If one would want to know what it might have been like to talk with a follower of Gerard Winstanley then my conversation with Jim is the closest I’m ever likely to get to that.

They told me something about the town, about its poverty, beauty, domestic violence, and alcoholism. But they also said a lot, too, about the small (and large) acts of kindness and generosity which made this desperately marginal community viable (just). As Alex put it: “A small town like this, is probably the only place I’ll be able to survive in.”

They were deeply kind to me. Like many people who spend a lot of time alone, they were much more eager to talk than to listen, which suited me fine.

I felt that I was very fortunate to have met them.

July 11, 2015 – San Francisco California

MADE IT!! Arrived SF at 4.00PM (Pacific) after a run today of 392 miles from the high, barren beautiful, solitudes of the Nevada Basin to the overwhelming frenzy of SF traffic.

Total Distance run: 2,302 miles over 3 and 1/2 days.

July 12, 2015 – San Francisco California

So, tomorrow, is it to be I.80 east; I.70 East; or (even) I.40 / 44 East? I’ve learned that the distances on google maps, once you start putting the miles on, are a very rough approximation of what you actually do. Coming west, Google maps was at least 300 miles out, which is getting on for half a day. A navigator at sea would never tolerate such imprecision. Tsk Tsk….

July 13, 2015 – Needles California

“Apocalypse California”

Their groves he feld, their gardins did deface,

Their arbers spoyle, their cabinets suppresse,

Their banket houses burne, their buildings race,

And, of the fayrest late, now made the fowlest place.alif

These lines (Spenser, FQ. II. 12) kept running though my head as I was driving, today, south (I. 5) down the Central Valley of California. The effect of the drought is shocking. Mile after mile of blackened and abandoned orchards, the land looking bleached and exhausted. Pathetic (hand-made) signs advertising 40, 50, 100 acres of orchard for sale.

But America’s confrontational politics are never far away. At first I didn’t understand the repeated signs on farm fences: “Congress created Dust Bowl.” Did they mean “Congress created THE Dust bowl in the 20’s and 30’s?” Surely not. Then I got it: the signs were epideictic: “Look, Traveller, at this. This is what Congress had done to us…”. Well, you have to blame somebody, I suppose, since abstractions (God, nature, human greed…) are too removed.

Another repeated rhetorical question (again plastered on signs) was “Dams or Trains?” I can guess where that one is coming from. But are those really the alternatives? America’s brilliance at re-forging the landscape is buried deep in the folk memory. If our fathers and grandfathers in the progressive era could divert (and sell) entire watersheds, why can’t we? Government is to blame, but government is also the rescuer who refuses to act.

But just how many pistachios and almonds do we need? If my livelihood depended on them, I’d know the answer to that. Like many non-Californians, reading about the drought, I confess to a bit of schadenfreude: all those immaculately manicured lawn in Pasadena perhaps weren’t such a great idea. But seeing the devastation that is happening, soon shifts that not very praiseworthy attitude.

July 13, 2015 – Needles California

Astrophel and Stella ride across America

I have fallen in love with Stella. She’s not actually called Stella, but the name I have bestowed upon her, for a wide variety of reasons, seems more than appropriate.

She has a flat, monotone, metallic voice, and her intonation (a vaguely N. American accent) is all wrong. She never asks questions, and she never replies to any question that she is asked. Her sole mode of diction is peremptory commands: “Take a sharp right onto… Turn left, then left again… follow the road for…”. There is only one time at which she hints that she might slip off the robotic, dominatrix-inspired mask, which is when it comes to the question of U turns.

“If possible” she rasps “take a U turn…”. Come, come, Stella! “If possible?” That suggests conciliation.

Being not merely a late adopter but a paleo-adopter, whenever I master a techno-gizmo which the rest of the world has been enjoying for at least ten years, I am overwhelmed by wonder. “Why was I never told of this?” I ask myself. (Well, of course, I was, but this is the first car I’ve owned that has Sat-Nav.)

But Stella is not so, well… bright. When I decide to depart from her chosen course, she takes ages to catch on. This afternoon, she was urging me to drive 40 miles IN THE WRONG DIRECTION so that we could join up to her preferred route. She hadn’t sussed out what I now knew about windy routes through the mountains. In such instances, I’ve stared to talk back at her: “Come on Stella, get with the program…”. I’ll bet that annoys her.

I’ve got to the point where I’ve started to tease her, purposefully going left when she says right, to see how long she takes to adapt. I adore the way she seems to get more and more exasperated with me as I willfully drive west instead of east. I know I’ve really got to her when she plays the U turn card: “If possible, take a U turn…”. From Stella that’s almost an admission of failure.

But… without Stella I’d still be driving around San Francisco, vainly searching for the I.80 East on ramp. Stella it was who guided me, with her customary blend of faint irony, ill-concealed contempt, and total sang-froid through the mayhem which is downtown San Francisco traffic.

There’s a long history of humans investing humanity in their artifacts. I’m enjoying Stella’s company. I wonder if she likes me?

July 13, 2015 – Needles California

The Germans have a word for everything, do they not? Is there a German word for the feeling that overwhelms you (a combination of disgust, horror, hysteria, and anger) when you turn back the sheets of your bed in a motel in the Mojave desert, and watch the cockroach that you have just disturbed scuttle for safety under your pillow?

“One morning Jonathan Sawday woke up to find himself sleeping with a giant cockroach…”. Could be a fantastic short story….

July 14, 2015 – Santa Rosa, New Mexico

… of all the motels I have stayed in on this trip this one is surely the most weird. But at $31 a night, who can complain? The place is run by Eddie, a gentleman of indeterminate age (somewhere between 60 and 80?), with dyed bright orange hair, thick with gel, a pencil thin mustache, earrings, and curiously tattooed fingers.

He is, in fact, a dead ringer for John Waters. Only a John Waters to whom something awful has happened.

Having established that I was British and not Australian, Eddie gave me his “British Accent” piece, which consisted of him pretending to be a pirate. “Now, ya see what I did thear… I was a pirate….”.

But there’s another side to Eddie. On opening my room ( description may come later, but it is in fact indescribable, the furniture was bought on an installment plan in 1958 — its probably now very valuable), I found a selection of magazines laid out, which included 5 year old copies of “Architectural Digest” and “Western Interiors and Design.” “Aha!” I thought “I think I know where we are, now….”

And then I noticed, for the first time, the very strange hoarding outside Eddie’s establishment, which I reproduce below. “Hold on…. Showtime? SHOWTIME??? What….. show…. is that, exactly?”

But weirder still…. as each cabin is occupied (the motel has about twenty cabins a bright red neon sign lights up above your door. Is this to remind Eddie (or Uncle Eddie as I’m sure he prefers to be known) where his victims are?

This could be interesting…

July 15, 2015 – Joplin Missouri

Having survived the night at Steady Eddie’s in Santa Rosa, I was on the road before dawn. A huge effort to get home in one go, which ended in failure, just 297 miles short of the target. Highlight of the day (it wasn’t a very interesting day) singing along to Gene Pitney’s “24 Hours from Tulsa” as I drove through Tulsa. Escape of the day: overtaking (unintentionally) a cop car just shy of the Missouri line at 95 mph (limit is 75). For some reason he didn’t give chase — I think he was texting. That was the point I decided to call it a day.

July 17, 2015 – St. Louis Missouri

… has been reflecting on what he learned in his dash backwards and forwards across a substantial chunk of the USA this week.

The many people with whom I chatted and (in some cases) had quite long conversations with, were farmers, truckers, mechanics, small business-people, bikers, motel workers, bar-staff. Staying in small towns in remote areas, far off the tourist trail, I learned that many of my interlocutors had never left the state in which they were born and grew up, and for many of them I was the first British person they (in turn) had ever met (though I was often mistaken for an Australian — I suppose we sound the same).

I tended to try and steer clear of political discussions, but politics eventually came up, though in a local way. Only once did I run up against outright bigotry (though had I been black it would maybe have been a different story — one thing I noted about the far west is that it is deeply white.) I met with a lot of confusion: why are our politicians letting us down? Why do we get tangled up in foreign wars? Why are we ignored? Which made me reflect on the disjunction between politics in the US media, with all its hostility and confrontation, and the actual opinions I was listening to, which were conciliatory, reflective, if often inconsistent.

There was no distrust of “go’mint” which is such a feature of tea-party rhetoric, and is assumed of the “red” states through which I was passing. Indeed, quite the opposite. Since vast swathes of the far west are federally owned, there was a recognition that federal and state subsidies were the only things that were keeping some of these places going. But then “government” was embodied not by Washington, which seemed so remote it might have been on another planet, but the local sheriff or the local office of the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). Indeed, the policies of the BLM, which (I was astonished to learn) administers 1/8 of the entire landmass of the continental US were far more important to people’s daily lives than the pronouncements of the State governor, let alone the President.

Many of the towns I passed through or stayed in are dying on their feet. The interstate system has done for them. And yet they have a rich cultural life, though not one that I found easy to recognize at first. “Culture” tends to be home-grown (it has to be if it’s a 200 mile round trip to the nearest cinema), but there were reading groups, often centered on the church, school, or library, everywhere. It astonished me how important small local libraries were to these communities. There was a noted absence of amateur drama and plays (which were such a feature of provincial life when I was growing up). I wondered (vaguely) if that’s a hang-over from some long-buried puritan distrust of the theater. Probably not.

Religion (Christianity) was central to the life of almost everybody I spoke with. But nobody attempted to save my soul. Rather, religion seemed to me to be more of a communitarian affair than a system of beliefs or a strict moral code — it’s how you met neighbors, found out what was happening in the community, and, of course, swapped gossip.

Almost everybody I met had a story of their family’s origins in the UK: Scotland or Ireland (Ulster) more often than England. As soon as I opened my mouth, they were often eager to claim some affinity with Britain (or England — the two being synonymous). But these stories were almost always quasi-mythic, handed down in the family, rather than matters of record. I wonder how long that will last? What (white) British family now remembers their ancestors’ passage from Jutland or Saxony or the Celtic heartlands?

It’s impossible to overstate the kindness with which I was greeted at every turn. People were always ready with advice (one chap gave me a comprehensive list of the wake-up times of all the cops on the road between the Nevada basin and California, so that I could avoid a ticket. One lady got up early to make me breakfast — lobster biscuits: they were rather good).

Several friends on here have said that a more durable travelogue is in order. I’m not so sure. Does the world really need another road trip story? Maybe if I’d been dragging a fridge behind me…. I love travel writing as a genre, but I think you need to do a lot of it to be any good at it. Nevertheless, sometimes, I felt a bit like William Cobbett whose Rural Rides (1822-6) is still one of my all-time favorite travel books. Jogging around the SE England and the Midlands on horseback, Cobbett was a wonderful observer of the effect of politics on the landscape. America could do with another Cobbett.

Anyway, I had great fun and enjoyed posting these snatches of the trip on here, which, otherwise, would have been forgotten.

Jonathan Sawday is a professor of English at Saint Louis University, he has written extensively on Renaissance literature.

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