From Tacoma to Santa Fe, Day 1

On his 1,500-mile road trip, Nick Martens finds comfort in LCD Soundsystem and Malcolm Gladwell while battling the frustrations of snowy weather, bad traffic, and Idaho.

That I like to listen to books during the drive doesn’t change the fact that every great road trip begins with a great album. Pulling out of a Shell station in Tacoma, Washington, I thumb through the artists in my iPhone, settling on what seems like an appropriate choice–LCD Soundsystem’s Sound of Silver. At the next red light, I punch the home button on the phone and switch to the Google Maps application. I plot a route to Santa Fe, New Mexico: 1,479 miles – about 23 hours 35 minutes. As I start onto Interstate 5 I think that I probably owe Steve Jobs a sexual favor or two.

A Seattleite’s reaction to snow is hilarious in every circumstance except driving. On a local newscast–a panic-filled edition reacting to the year’s only snowstorm–a suburban man scrapes metal against asphalt trying to shovel a translucent, half-inch-thick patch of slush from his driveway. I could probably sell an America’s Funniest Home Video-style DVD of such hyperbolic antics in my native Colorado and make a tidy buck.

Amusement turns to frustration as I leave behind the temperate Puget Sound region, entering the inclement Cascades. The aptly-named Snoqualmie Pass leads over the mountains, but the path, in Seattle terms, is treacherous. Drivers seize up with fear, slowing me well below my ideal 80 mph clip. Worse, just as the traffic begins to build up, the two right-side speakers in my car give out, hamstringing James Murphy for his climactic “New York I Love You.”

I lose an hour on the snowy road as police verify that every car they allow over the pass is either equipped with snow chains or four-wheel-drive. I shudder to think of the delay I’d have faced had I not been accompanied by my beloved 1997 Subaru Legacy sedan. I’ve taken her across the 1,300 mile road from Denver to Tacoma five times since beginning college, but this trek to Santa Fe is our longest yet. Moreover, I need to finish the drive in two days. It’s almost Christmas.

As the road clears, I settle in for the long haul and switch on this trip’s audiobook, Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point, read by the author himself. Occasionally, I’m given dramatic illustrations of the book’s central thesis when, at a certain–one might say tipping–point, chunks of snow caked to the front of a car’s bumper lose their battle against the wind and explode onto the hood. This happens most dramatically when a firecracker of snow pops from the car in front of me and rains ice down on my windshield.

(Book Review in Brief: The Tipping Point is an endlessly fascinating collection of social science anecdotes and studies, but the unifying theory that Gladwell presents, while intellectually satisfying, lacks the empirical grounding needed for me to take it as seriously as Gladwell does. Best Part: The eye-opening comparison of Sesame Street and Blue’s Clues. Worst Part: Gladwell’s effusive praise of the discredited “Broken Windows” method of crime-fighting; Freakonomics makes him look like a fool on this subject (to Gladwell’s credit, he admits as much). Overall Verdict: Absolutely recommended, if taken with a grain of salt.)

I crest a tall hill deep into central Washington and the world confronts me through the glass. Ashen clouds fringe the mountainous horizon, and steely-blue light diffuses through the hazy sky, settling over the gray landscape. Dusted with sapphire snow and laced by cutting swaths of fog, the vista hums with an otherworldly essence. It feels Himalayan. Having lost time on Snoqualmie and expecting further delays from the jagged clouds in the distance, I force myself to press past this majestic scene, affording only a brief dip in speed an a few inadvisable glimpses through my increasingly opaque windows. This is the crime and the beauty of the American road trip, the inevitable callousness of having to shove the big empty parts of the country behind you with little more than an appreciative nod to mark the occasion.

Deciding how fast to drive is essentially an exercise in risk management. I generally consider anything slower than ten mph over the limit to be safe from police attention. My extensive four years of driving experience have borne this out; I’ve never been pulled over. But a thousand-mile-plus journey warrants further precautions. On my first drive from Denver to Tacoma, after pushing the car faster than 85 mph for five straight hours, the engine overheated a few miles outside of Rock Springs, Wyoming. I was furious and fear-stricken at the time, but looking back, I see it as among the luckiest moments of my life. The car could just as easily have overheated in the 100 miles of deserted wasteland stretching out in both directions from Rock Springs. As it turned out, I managed to drag the ol’ Subaru into town and finesse her the rest of the way to the Pacific Northwest. Plus, I instituted a rule that has served me well for years: Keep it at 80.

The plains of Washington and Oregon grant me weather calm enough to follow my rule. But in eastern Oregon, I re-encounter my old nemesis, the Mountain Pass. The snow builds in subtle layers as I wind up the gentle slope, catching a panoramic view of the broad plain below. The fog also accumulates. A new and pressing factor enters into my risk analysis: How fast can I go without crashing? This is a simple question with a complicated and eventually unknowable answer. In my mind, I must resolve two conflicting desires: wanting to stay alive and wanting to arrive on time. Common sense dictates that I should err on the side of living, but my winter driving experience, four-wheel drive, and youthful invincibility-complex insist I should drive five or ten mph faster than anyone else on the road. Passing a semi at 70 around a snowy and possibly icy bend, with snow spraying in my face and no feeling of traction in my tires is terrifying.

An hour into the snow, the weight of the drive begins to affect my mind. Weariness compounds tension compounds a convenience store diet, and the world becomes weird. Charging down a chute of fog and snow, my path only apparent from the smear of my headlights and a speckled stream of glowing dots, it’s easy to feel isolated. The universe collapses into a mountain highway in eastern Oregon, dots marching en masse to some prophesied location. (This fantasy is weakened by the fact that we’re actually headed towards Idaho.) Nestled between two mountains, a constellation of green fluorescent lights blooms alongside the road. It’s some kind of industrial operation. The sight is so strange that I’m compelled to pause my book and switch on Aphex Twin. As I pass this displaced luminous giant, synthesizers droning in my ears, I’ve truly left the Earth. Remember the exterior shots of the spaceship at the beginning of Alien? That’s where I am.

Our planet resolidifies as I approach and enter Idaho. I hate this state. My apologies to the Idahoans, but your bleak landscape, your rude and incompetent servicepeople, and your ugly, ugly capital city all leave a bitter taste in my mouth. I don’t care how famous your potatoes are. Outside Boise, still snowy, I see a pick-up truck cruising down the highway median. The traffic isn’t bad and the roads aren’t more than mildly slick, so I can only assume that this driver is an idiot. I gladly hurry through the city and push my speed upwards as I hit the desolate countryside. I’m briefly mystified by how often I slow to let emergency vehicles pass, but I soon come across a nasty accident on the other side of the highway. I begin to mentally chastise this person for being reckless in the snow, but catch myself and ease up a bit on the gas.

One final and more relevant reason that I hate Idaho is that its highways are a source of endless inconvenience whenever I make this trip. Approaching Twin Falls, I feel that I have about 100 miles of drive left in me. Sadly, I would need to continue 200 miles past Twin Falls to reach another outpost of civilization. So now I have to choose whether I want to keep driving, exhausted, through the snow and probably crash, or if I want to stop, contend with an assuredly hostile Idaho hotel clerk, and end my day well short of my mileage goal. In a few minutes, I will regret my choice to stop.

The clerk at the Holiday Inn is effeminate, nervous, and unfriendly. He doesn’t seem to want my money, but ends up taking it anyway, handing me a pair of key-cards for my room for one. Back in my car, looking for a parking spot, the world flashes and goes dark. The lights flicker back on, another flash, and this time they stay dark. Dazed from the trip, I stumble outside into the snow. Every street light and every hotel sign is off. Denial flares up briefly–maybe this worthless state has some sort of light pollution statute–but the reality of a power outage becomes obvious as I attempt to re-enter the hotel. The effeminate clerk is too flustered to open the locked front door when I knock, but I’m quickly rescued by a passing guest.

Navigating an emergency-lit hotel in Twin Falls, Idaho is a singularly unsettling experience. I work through the corridors with the light from my phone, my anxiety somewhat quelled by the still-functioning card lock on my door. I make a few bedtime preparations with my makeshift flashlight, cursing the water heater for denying me a desperately needed shower. I settle into bed and hammer out my “Best Album” blurbs on my MacBook. Unable to zone out to Twin Falls local news, I fire up an episode of Fooly Cooly that I keep on my hard drive. Drifting towards sleep, I lament my growing carnal debt to Mr. Jobs.

Nick Martens is a founding editor of The Bygone Bureau. You can email him, if you like.