There are few things as deeply ingrained in the American experience as the road trip. From Dean Moriarty and Sal Paradise “balling across America” to Steinbeck traveling with his dog Charlie to see what’s out there, road tripping is burned deep in our collective psyche.
Over the years, my road trips have ranged from coast-to-coast epics, tours of the northern and southern tier of states and routes starting in California and looping around the great southwest.
And that’s where I am now, part way through a tour of the Southwest, only this time without kayaks, mountain bikes, backpacking gear and buddies but with granddaughters, ages 12 and 10. As this trip has unfolded, there are times I think of myself as what Sal Paradise might have been like had he come back as a middle-aged character in a Kerouac sequel to On The Road.
In his Darhma Bums Kerouac and friends attempt to climb Matterhorn Peak in the Sawtooth Range that forms the jagged backdrop to Bridgeport, California. The climbing attempt failed but not a raucous evening at the Bridgeport Inn. The Inn still stands and over time its various owners have come to embrace its place in Kerouac lore.
Long before Bridgeport, our road trip started with a drive from Bend to Lake Tahoe to see old friends. After a big meal and a night in a cozy house, we set off around the lake. It was then my morale began to sink. The roadway was packed and parking at spectacular places like Emerald Bay was nonexistent with lots jammed and cars lined up for miles along the roadway.
It was then I remembered, it had been almost 40 years since I traveled during the summer holiday season, during that time when temperatures are hot, tempers are short and “I’m bored” and “when do we get there?” become the two most commonly used expressions in the English language.
We survived the Tahoe rush and ended up in Markleeville seat of California’s least-populated county: Alpine County.
In the early 1970s, I used to the cross-country west of town into the backcountry and arrive back to the funky old Grover Hot Springs and a soak that took away all the aches and pain of days on skis and nights in tents or snow caves.
I also used to come here to fly fish inspired by the writer Colin Fletcher, who discovered a rare strain of rainbow (one with purplish coloring) in several of the streams in this area and wrote about them in his book The Thousand Mile Summer.
The trout are still here, the stream seems the same, but the funky old hot springs are gone, replaced by two pools and a hefty fee to swim or soak.
An oddity of the springs is how they are favored by throngs of Russian-Americans. Soaking, I come to learn, is a great Russian tradition and far from the summer dachas and springs of the home country, many Californians of Russian make Grover Hot Springs the center of their summer vacations.
My Russian is limited, so communication is not that good. My French, however, is passable except to Parisians and linguist snobs. I get to test it out with a mother and daughter from the south of France touring Death Valley. We agree “C’est tres chaud”: it is very hot.
So hot that we drive quickly through the Valley of Death and make way straight to Las Vegas where I get lost trying to find our hotel. 35 years of attending trade shows in Vegas and I thought I knew my way around. Unfortunately, the town has grown and my comprehension of it no longer valid.
It’s 105 degrees outside as we check in and the granddaughters head straight for the pool. I make my way to the exercise room where the lady attendant says: “the town was better when the mob ran it. I miss the mob.” I couldn’t agree more. The mob ran a clean town and most made guys of yore would be appalled at modern day Vegas.
Coming back from the exercise room I walk past a well-inked young woman dressed in a skintight Lycra suit. A belt around her waist is comprised of silver handcuffs. I smile as I pass and hope the girls don’t start asking me about, “that funny looking woman.”
Later, we take the girls to The Strip to see the sights. Except for a conversation with a trio of cheery Quebecois women, I arrive back at our hotel totally depressed and longing for fresh air and pine trees.