Thunder Road

There’s a great saying from the film Back to the Future, in which Dr. Emmett Brown says to a baffled Marty McFly, “Roads? Where we’re going, we don’t need roads!”
I traveled a lot of roads in the summer of 2010: more than 6,000 miles worth. Without Dr. Brown’s time travel capabilities, I did need the roads to take me where I wanted to go. 
But I’m convinced I did catch a few moments where the lines between the past and the present blurred: standing on the summit of the Cahokia Mounds in the heat of the late afternoon sunshine; reading letters exchanged over a century ago between two Texas lovers; walking through the long grass that covers the hills of the Little Bighorn battlefield; catching Al Swearengen’s name in documents held at the South Dakota state archives.
In the years since, I’ve covered ground in other ways – gotten married, changed “day jobs,” moved homes, and continued to write.
I never expected this blog to last more than a few weeks, let alone four years. If this is your first visit here, I encourage you to visit the entries from 2010, starting with the oldest ones first, to get a taste of the original trip. If you like those, the 2011 posts chronicle my experiences on a cattle drive in Nevada. But now, in my final post, I’ve decided its time to close shop here, and move into other projects.
I’ve had ideas germinating that haven’t had the chance to develop further, and I need to take some time to see where those paths take me.
Thanks for dropping in! It’s been a good ride.

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P.S.: The Playlist

Driving out West this summer I had many hours in the car to listen to music. I found myself thinking about which songs I’d pair up with the people and places on my journey. This is the playlist I came up with. Some choices are pretty obvious; others have an explanatory note.

1. Where’s a Sunset (When You Need One) – Lane Turner
For Jack Bailey
Reading Jack’s c. 1868 trail log at the Library of Congress was one of the catalysts for getting me started on this trek. At the end of the diary there is a poem Jack wrote to his wife, and this song seems fitting. Plus, both Jack and Lane are from Texas, and Texans stick together.

2. Cowboys – Counting Crows
For Dodge City, KS
“Cowboys on the road tonight, crying in their sleep. If I was a hungry man with a gun in my hand there’s some promises to keep…”

3. Truly, Madly, Deeply – Savage Garden
For Clitus Jones and Lily Sutton
Letters exchanged between these two are preserved at Baylor University’s Texas Collection. Sweet, lovely, and romantic.

4. Only Living Boy in New York – Simon and Garfunkel
For Teddy Roosevelt
After his wife Alice died, I can imagine TR walking around Manhattan feeling like this.

5. Lose Yourself – Eminem
For Buck Taylor
The star cowboy of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show might have been able to appreciate Eminem’s sentiments.

6. One – Metallica
For Custer’s 7th Calvary
One YouTube viewer wrote, “If this song was already written in 1944 and iPods were invented, this is what I would listen to while invading Normandy.”

7. Amazing – Kanye West
For George Armstrong Custer

8. Professional Widow – Tori Amos
For Elizabeth Custer
There’s a story that Elizabeth once met Abraham Lincoln and in the course of their conversation, told the president that she supported her husband’s aggressive military campaigns. The president replied, “So you want to be a widow?”

9. Happiness is a Warm Gun – The Beatles
For Wild Bill Hickok

10. Please Don’t Leave Me – Pink
For Calamity Jane
This song about bad behaviors and sour relationships struck a few chords with me as I thought about one of the West’s most notorious women.

11. Time to Pretend – MGMT
For Buffalo Bill
Did anyone package and sell the Western experience more effectively than Buffalo Bill? I think not! There’s even a line about Paris, where the show stopped multiple times.

12. Pokerface – Lady Gaga
For Deadwood, SD

13. Highwayman – The Highwaymen (Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, Kris Kristofferson)
For the drive home.

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The Odyssey

Sunset near Bozeman, MT.

Although I never left America, I feel a hint of culture shock coming back to the East. Yesterday I reached the fields and rolling hills of Pennsylvania, and am spending the day in my hometown before heading back to Washington, DC tomorrow. It feels fitting to be back here in the original frontier west of the Appalachians. Time for some reckoning up.

I didn’t expect to see a pair of cowboy boots made for a child in the 1860s, or George Armstrong Custer’s toothbrush, or the letter James Butler “Wild Bill” Hickok wrote to his wife Agnes just three weeks before his death in Deadwood (“We will have A home yet then we will be so happy I am all most shure I will do well here.”] The chair that he died in is still on display at the second iteration of the No. 10 Saloon.

I didn’t think my dad would get pumped when I dropped in Janis Joplins’ greatest hits and that he’d turn it up so we’d both be singing along to “Bobby McGee.” I laughed when I saw how the grasshoppers really do plague South Dakota (just like in the Little House On the Prairie books), and not even incessent Mexican ranchera music at 2am at a campground outside of Dodge City was enough to make me forget how scattered and beautiful the stars were that night.

Coming soon will be a photo montage or some sort of denoument. For now, it’s doing laundry, folding maps, and wondering how often I can get away with wearing my own boots in DC.

PS Photo is not the rosy-fingered dawn of Homer’s Odyssey. This is what the sky looked like the first night I got to Bozeman.

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Soul Food

I embarrassed myself plenty taking food pictures, and felt like I was on some kind of diet plan that required recording everything I ate. One of the best things about traveling is the chance to eat a lot of funky (and hopefully delicious) food. These are a few of the highlight meals. There were plenty of un-highlights as well – way too many fast food burgers, an immoderate amount of trail mix, and even one of those Backpacker’s Pantry meals that you cook in pouch with boiling water and of course never really progresses beyond the lukewarm stage of rehydration.

A Dang Quesadilla


From Foundation Grounds Coffeehouse, St. Louis, MO. Yum! That’s my sister on the other side of the table.

Texas Pit BBQ


Schoepf’s Old Time Pit BBQ serves it up old-style off of I-35 in Belton, TX. Chop beef, pork, sausages, and more, plus plenty of sides and a back porch that seems to cover at least a couple of acres. You can bet that’s sweet tea in the glass.

Cherry-Bourbon French Toast


This French toast and the accompanying coffee did much to restore body and soul after a late night on 6th Street. I asked for extra cherries and got them, and the bourbon-cream sauce was out of this world. From The Old Pecan Street Cafe in Austin, TX.

West 019

I also had “The Best Indian Taco in the West” outside the Little Bighorn battlefield and quite possibly the best coffee ever from Beta Coffee in Cody, WY (no picture or website, but I got a sweatshirt.) It was a robust blend of flavor and caffeine that was the perfect way to start the day. Maybe I could have spent more time analyzing the subtlety of the flavors, but I was too busy enjoying it.

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Hurricanes and Other Hazards

005 (2)The atmospheric drizzle of last Thursday evening turned into a fullscale torrent by Friday afternoon courtesy of Hurricane Alex. Not enough to stop intrepid adventurers from bravely exploring Austin’s downtown and venturing across Lady Bird Lake. Once on the other side, the rain hit full tilt and I ended up spending half an hour huddled under an overpass with some stranded joggers. Strangely, it was the most relaxed moment of the trip to date. There was nothing to do, no place to be except right there, watching the rain.

That evening, Circe and I headed to the Broken Spoke, one of Texas’ oldest, old-school honkytonks. Its the kind of place where the floor tilts and if you stand close enough to the dance floor, you can feel the vibrations of peoples’ feet hitting the boards coming up through the soles of your shoes. During one turn around the floor my partner asked where I was from, and when I replied “Washington, DC” he said, “The last time my people been up there, they was ridin’ with the Confederates. Ain’t been back since and don’t mean to go back.” I wasn’t sure if I was supposed to laugh or not but I did anyway.

Today I dropped Circe off at the Denver airport and picked up my father. The Rockies beckoned. We drove to Estes Park and soaked up a few fleeting hours of sunshine. While hiking a trail called the Devil’s Backbone, we came across a chubby snake sprawled out in the middle of the path. We looked at each other, trying to assess its’ species and debating on whether to shoo it away or just try to get a running start and jump over it. After some very long seconds, the snake inched its way into the grass and away from us. As it slid by, we saw a two and a half inch rattle at the end of its’ tail.

The sunshine and warm temperatures disappeared the second my father and I crossed the Wyoming border. It is 51 degrees here and threatening to drop even further. I’m not terribly afraid of snakes, but I’m not too keen on sleeping out the next several nights in the cold. I suppose it wouldn’t be true West if it didn’t give me a little kick from time to time.

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Love, Texas-Style

039Ahhh, Texas. I hit the northern plains Wednesday afternoon and knew immediately that something was different. The skies seemed to open up a little bit, the land got a little bit wider. Sure the sides of the highway are built up with motels and gas stations and fast food joints, but I can’t help but wonder how the land struck those early pioneers who’d grown up in the New England woods or Southern pine forests.

The first thing I did when I got to Texas, crosseyed from having driven from Oklahoma City that morning and the air hot and muggy enough that my shirt is sticking to my back within 2 seconds of stepping out of the car, was to dive into the Baylor University library. I was digging around their manuscript collection looking at papers of ranching families from the late 1800s. Maybe it sounds dull, but it was actually fascinating to unravel parts of life stories from the paper trail they had left behind. And that’s how I stumbled across the love story between Clitus Jones and Lily Sutton.

In the middle of a thick folder of papers a little note pops up, written on faded blue-lined paper.

Miss Lily Sutton,
Can I have the pleasure of your company for a drive this evening?
Your friend,
E.C. Jones

I turn over the note, and to my delight and surprise, there is Lily’s reply.

Mr. Jones, I accept your invitation for a drive this afternoon with pleasure.
Your friend,
Lily Sutton.
Cuevo, Texas. May 8th, 1881.

The formality of the language and the quaintness of it all is, frankly, adorable. I read on breathlessly as their courtship unfolds. The pair progresses from “Mr. Jones” and “Miss Sutton” to exchanges of “I never wanted to see any body as badly in my life” and “An intire [sic] week passed away before I heard one thing of you for your letter only came today. It is needless to say how much pleasure it afforded me to hear from you.” They ditched the platonic “your friend” for “ever yours” or “ever your own loving Lily.”

I wonder when Clitus is going to ante up and finally seal the deal. The pair swaps letters for nearly a year and a half, writing to each other at odd hours, promising to keep the missives short but somehow, can’t seem to stop themselves from writing on and on.

At last, the wedding invitation. It is a plain white rectangle of paper, simply announcing the marriage of E. Clitus Jones and Lily Sutton at the Episcopal Church in Cuevo, Texas on January 17th, 1883. As far as I can tell, they did live pretty happily. After nearly a decade of marriage, Clitus was still sending Lily letters from his business trips, addressed to “My Dear Little Girl.”

That evening, I was ready to emerge from Victorian-era romance to the 21st century by way of downtown Austin. After almost a week of traveling solo, I connect with my good friend Circe and we proceed to get knee deep in what the city can offer.

We start with dinner. One of the tattooed guys hanging out in front of one of the endless places to get inked in this town recommended Stubb’s Bar-B-Que . It was all we had hoped it would be – large plates of meat upstairs, a band downstairs, cool exposed brick mixing happily with neon signage. From there, we roll to a bar called The Library because my curiousity was piqued by a place that has floor to ceiling bookshelves and also serves booze. Turns out its a Texas chain, but still a fun place for drinks and people-watching. There is live music everywhere. Seems you can’t throw a rock without hitting a guy with a guitar, and that is just the way we like it.

We end the night at Maggie Mae’s. Yelpers are all over this place, and justifiably so. The staff are friendly and the crowd this Thursday evening seems relaxed and readu to have a good time. We listen to Jeremy Steding and his band (tagline: “A Damn Good Ride”) and they do crowd-pleasing covers of Johnny Cash and Tom Petty. While on break, Jeremy stops by at every table to distribute smiles and business cards. The kicker of the evening, though, is an amazing guitarist (also a pretty good dancer) named Adam Rogers who gets onstage and makes that thing wail. His acoustic rendition of the notorious “Thong Song” stunningly enough actually sounded good.

Yes, this is a long, long way from 1881.

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Lewis and Clark Slept Here

I have been on the road three days and have covered 1,337 miles, or almost a third of the total trip distance. I have been waiting for the landscape to change, but the variations have been subtle. On Saturday I rolled through hour after hour of Ohio and Illinois farmland. Today I covered Missouri and a good bit of Oklahoma. The Missouri bluffs were pretty and greener than I expected. The other surprise: roadkill armadillos.

Picture of empty highway.
Highway leading across the American West.

Yesterday I knocked around St. Louis with my sister. We ditched the Arch and explored the Delmar Loop, rubbing elbows with Midwestern hipsters and trawling vintage clothing shops. In late afternoon we climbed the Indian bluffs outside of the city, about the oldest and most mysterious thing the area has to offer.

Clark recorded seeing the Cahokia Mounds while the expedition was camped out on the eastern side of the Mississippi River during the winter of 1803/1804. It was a freezing day in January, the cold bitter enough that his wet feet froze to his shoes so that they had to be carefully extracted from the leather. Quite a change from the sweltering heat of midsummer I felt yesterday, a field of rolled haybales visible just to the left and the city limits of Collinsville, IL hardly a stone’s throw away.

Beyond St. Louis I hit Interstate 44, built to bypass historic Route 66. There was a earlier route that predated both of these roads, a universe away from joyriding Americans reveling in the freedom of the highway. This same ground had been traveled over by Cherokees marching westward on the Trail of Tears. This is the dark side of the American dream and the pioneer spirit, the part that kills or dislocates whatever gets in its way.

Tomorrow, I’m off to the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum to look at some old cattle trail maps and other relics. This seemed the place to start digging into the West, to see it in its distilled museum form.

Tonight, I’m camping out with the sounds of cicadas surrounding my tent. I chatted with a couple folks who were impressed and maybe a little surprised to see a woman traveling alone. Turns out they spent a stint in northern Virginia. It’s a small world.

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Gone, Baby, Gone

Map of United States showing travel route.
My travel route.

Here it is – the map of my route. It’s a big trip.

The idea is to cover as much ground as possible, maybe get a little road-weary, but definitely get a sense of the space and atmosphere of the Far West.

I’m traveling from DC to St. Louis, then heading south to Oklahoma and Texas. After cooling my heels in Austin for a couple days, I swing north into Kansas and Colorado, and then up into Wyoming to explore Cody and Yellowstone. Bozeman, MT is the end of the trail before driving home, just like it was back in the heyday of the cattledrives.

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48 Hours

Picture of mountains.
Bugaboo Range in the Canadian Rockies.

This morning my thoughts are jumpy enough that I probably don’t need the second cup of coffee I am drinking. Its not yet 9 o’clock in the morning and already the heavy heat of DC summer is seeping in around the windows.

Yesterday I wrote a bit about the mindset of early pioneers and explorers, and wondered what their thoughts may have been on the eve of their adventures. Its a mindset that is probably completely lost to us today: the contours of the globe are too well known, our coordinates easily programmed in GPS devices, and SATphones keeping us connected from virtually anywhere on earth.

So if not danger and discovery, what am I seeking? I can think of many answers to that question, all of them true but none of them complete.

I am going for the search. Sure, this territory is well-canvassed and well-traveled. But it is new to me, and I am new to it. It is the newness that captivates me, and the sense of being lost in something much bigger than myself.

Sometimes the past surges forward and crashes over us like a wave. A few years ago I spent some time in England and studied in Canterbury, where I made many visits to Canterbury Cathedral. This ancient edifice of English Christianity still hangs timelessly over the city, its stones as cool and quiet as they were a millennium ago. I remember kneeling in one of the side chapels in the crypt, alone, the patter of tourists’ feet echoing in the main passage, and being swept away by the feeling that someone else might have been praying in that very spot 500, 600, 800, or 1,000 years ago. Separated in time, we became united in geography. It was a moment I wanted to sit still for.

The photo in this post is of the Bugaboo Mountains in British Columbia, Canada. They run roughly parallel to the Rockies and are breathtakingly beautiful, the weather fickle as it is at high altitudes, and their silent immensity giving the impression that the world is nothing but mountains. It is this sense of immersion that stops me in my tracks. In Washington, I am part of many things – work, friendships, professional networks, volunteerism – but there is no single experience that defines my day to day life.

Out in bigger spaces, with bigger vistas, maybe there is the possibility of being overwhelmed in the best possible sense.

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72 Hours

Amy Arden
Amy Arden in Cody, Wyoming, 2010.

Roadtrips are as American as apple pie. There comes a point-probably many points-where we have to go through the rite of passage to pack up the car, top off the gas tank, pile in the CDs, and drive off in search of adventure.

In less than 72 hours I’m diving deep into this fantasyland myself. For the past 10 years I have daydreamed about exploring the reaches of the Far West. Maybe it was the result of growing up with too much Little House on the Prairie. Maybe it’s because as an East Coaster, I was (and continue to be) fascinated by any place where the horizon goes on unbroken. Or perhaps I am finally getting around to taking Horace Greeley’s advice, issued to disaffected DC denizens almost a century and a half ago, to “Go West!”

I’m not sure what Lewis and Clark were thinking as they rode West and into the unknown, or what went through the mind of kids trying their luck as Pony Express riders, or immigrants who packed their bags and their hopes and traveled towards the setting sun. My trip is going to be an easy one in comparison, my route neatly laid out in Google maps, my car stocked with snacks and air conditioning, and my gear designed with all the technological advancements of the past two centuries. No canvas tents or itchy wool or nasty hardtack biscuits. I’m only a temporary pioneer.

The places I intend to see are iconic. Texas, larger than life and as John Steinbeck once said “a state of mind.” Dodge City, KS. Cody, WY, which has had a summertime rodeo going strong since the 1930s and performers who reenact frontier gunfights every evening. Bozeman, MT, which people say is beautiful as God’s own country. And finally, Deadwood, SD made famous by the TV miniseries and where the hotel owned by the town’s former sheriff still stands and is reportedly haunted by his ghost.

This is where I’m headed, into the dust and memories, where past and present and future overlap. Once upon a time…and off into the sunset.

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