And Then I Drove to Oklahoma

Some people live in the same town their whole lives. On their way to work, they pass the movie theatre where they had their first date. While waiting in traffic, they glance over at the football stadium bleachers they used to huddle under, smoking cigarettes and listening to the Violent Femmes.

Maybe all those signposts serve as a reminder of how far one has come. Maybe they bring a smile of nostalgia.

I wouldn’t know.

I mostly never lived anywhere longer than a year. Many of those anywheres were in Oklahoma. Go down by the river and grab a handful of small, smooth rocks. Throw them across the dirt path like you’re playing craps and see where they land. Those were the places I lived.

I haven’t been back to any of them in 25 years.

So as I drive by the movie theatre and the football stadium bleachers and walk down the stairs to the children’s room of the library, it’s like I’m remembering someone else’s life.

My drive started in the middle. Driving south on I-35 from Kansas, you’ll be tempted to veer east towards Stillwater. Stillwater is a town some people have heard of, home to Oklahoma State University. Alma mater of Heisman trophy winner Barry Sanders and country singer Garth Brooks. You may have even seen an Eskimo Joe’s t-shirt or two in your travels around the world.

I saw Sanders play at OSU’s stadium in 1988 – the greatest individual season in college football history. But I’m getting ahead of the story. As I said, I started in the middle.

If you don’t veer east towards Stillwater, you end up in Perry (population 5,126), which is where I ended up after leaving the truck stop in Newton, Kansas. It’s also where I ended up in the middle of the fourth grade.

What I remember most is the library. My memory holds this picture of a basement room, full of books. I would pile the books high in my arms, a book tower as tall as I could carry. And I’d come back the next week for the next stack, until I had read through them all.

My favorite was Nancy Drew. I tried Hardy Boys when I had no more Nancy Drew to read but it just wasn’t the same.

Was that room even real? Or has my mind constructed it over the years, a composite of libraries and schools and books in towns as scattered as stones?

I walked in and saw the stairs. And went down into the basement room. Sure, it’s been remodeled, but it’s got those same basement windows, that same boxy shape. Still with nowhere near enough Nancy Drew mysteries.

perry library

So maybe that’s what one feels when one sees signposts from years gone by: confirmation that one’s memories aren’t artificial constructs, but real life.

The library (only open until noon on Saturday; wifi password is the phone number) isn’t all that Perry has to offer. Perry also has Timothy McVeigh.

The local diner’s wall of photos has a section with a peculiar focus:

timothy mcveigh

The photo on the left is the Oklahoma State trooper (standing in this very cafe) who arrested McVeigh. The photo on the right reads “Tim McVeigh moves from Noble County to Okla City jail”. (The chummy “Tim” as though he and Perry were friends; they were not. He simply had to drive past Perry (where he was stopped) on his way from Oklahoma City, an hour to the south).

Anyway, all of that was after my time. I left Perry in 1983.

Here’s what I found in Perry: once the library closed at noon, no place in town had wifi. My RV app claimed there was a state campground nearby, but it was nowhere to be found. There were no coffee shops. The town square gathered together buildings that had once held stores, but now held nothing.

I had lunch at the diner and kept driving.


Coffee and Wifi

When you’re working on the road, coffee and wifi are as vital as gasoline. (Of course, coffee is just as vital when not on the road. And when not working. Mostly anytime you are breathing and not sleeping.)

Seattle basically has startups operating from coffee shops in place of downtown office buildings. You can barely walk down the street without starting a company. At the very least, everything you need to get started is right there in front of you: a desk, a conference room, free internet, examples to inspire you, hope that it’s possible.

Do aspiring entrepreneurs have that environment everywhere in the United States? Turns out, not exactly.

Many towns have no coffee shops at all. Or libraries. In towns like that, you start to appreciate that McDonald’s free wifi is providing a place to do homework or meet with startup co-founders.

The interstate offers more wifi spots than you might think. Pilot/Flying J truck stops have a monthly wifi subscription (a la Gogo for flights), some rest areas have wifi, and of course, the Starbucks, McDonald’s, and so on.

But I’ve been venturing off the highway and into towns. Here’s what I do. As I’m stopped getting gas or admiring a vista or whatever (see example vista below):


I open the Yelp app on my phone and choose Nearby > Coffee & Tea > Map View. I then scroll a little ahead and see if anything pops up. Then I switch back to list view and sort by stars. If I see something that’s less than 20 miles out of my way and has good reviews, I drive over to check it out.

Carpinteria Beach, CA (Lucky Llama Coffee)

The state beach campground in Carpinteria doesn’t have wifi and my cell signal was faint at best, so using it as a hotspot only sometimes worked. I walked a few blocks downtown and worked outside at Lucky Llama Coffee. Good coffee and great yogurt and fruit bowls!

Coffee and wifi

Riverside, CA (Back to the Grind)

I was staying with my sister in Riverside, but had to bring the RV downtown for that tire and brake situation, so I hung out at Back to the Grind downtown while the mechanic was checking things out. This place might be the quintessential example of a coffee shop. Good coffee, lots of comfy couches, a patio out back, a loft upstairs. With its huge wooden bar, tin ceilings, and low lighting, I could have been in Brooklyn.

Riverside, CA Coffee

Green River, UT (Green River Coffee Company)

Yelp told me this place had good breakfasts, and Yelp was not wrong. It also had an eclectic record collection.

Green River Coffee

Black Hawk, CO (Mountain Mocha Cafe)

The night of the Google Maps incident, I stayed in Black Hawk, CO, which is a crazy, crazy place. You drive through mountains, and nothing, and then all of a sudden, mini Las Vegas! I also came upon this disturbing mural that made me wonder if I was in Pawnee, Indiana.

Black Hawk, CO Mural

Black Hawk is the smallest town in Colorado, with a population of only 118.

Wikipedia tells us about a “heated competition” over who can attract the most gamblers: Black Hawk or nearby Central City. Black Hawk has benefited greatly from gambler laziness as drivers come upon Black Hawk first, so why keep driving? Central City fought back by (get this !) constructing a new highway as an alternate route that goes through Central City first!

Black Hawk CO Gambling

But in the end, Black Hawk has won out because “Gambling in Black Hawk also benefits from less restrictive building codes; while Central City until recently limited building heights to 53 feet to preserve the historic character of the town, Black Hawk has no such limits”. No kidding. (Black Hawk also apparently has more casinos than Atlantic City.)

Black Hawk banned bicycles until the law was overturned by the state Supreme Court. Wikipedia explains “the ban was prompted by a surge in traffic following the change in maximum casino betting limits from $5 to $100.” Well, sure.

The tiny little town is also home of Mountain Mocha Coffee, where they roast their own beans and make delicious soup and sandwiches. I hung out with the wifi for a couple of hours and then headed onward to Denver.

mountain mocha coffee black hawk co

Denver, CO (Weathervane Cafe)

First, it was rather thrilling to find street parking in Denver. The Weathervane Cafe is equally thrilling. Go upstairs where there’s a great patio, comfy chairs, and a tiny antique store.

weathervane cafe denver

Hoxie, KS (Oscar’s)

Yep, there’s a big cow in front.

Oscar's Hoxie KS

It’s interesting. All those towns, exactly like Hoxie. One long main street with a hardware store, maybe a diner, a gas station. In 9 towns of 10, no coffee shop. No wifi. No schools, no library. And then out of nowhere, the 10th town has Oscar’s.

After Kansas, I drove into Oklahoma. And Oklahoma deserves its own set of posts.


This Morning, I Showered At a Truck Stop

My childhood was filled with moments of passing right by a Live Buffalo I could Pet and a Real Teepee I could Explore. Whether we were moving halfway across the country (yearly) or driving to see my grandparents (holidays and summers), my parents had the unwavering goal of getting there as fast as possible.

The map of America in my mind was filled with Travelodges (and its inexplicable logo of a sleepwalking bear), truck stops, and the occasional Stuckey’s.

The Stuckey’s stops were exercises in disappointment. So many plastic horses, feathered wind chimes, and elaborate key chains that no one would buy me.

The truck stops were a little scary. They looked OK at first: like a normal gas station or convenience store. But they had these secret rooms in the back: diners, stores, entirely different gas stations where only truckers were allowed.

Far away, truckers were our friends: honking at us as we made the universal “please honk your trucking horn at us” motion from the back window of the car. In the heydey of CB radios, we learned their secret language. 10-4, we were their good buddy. In my stepdad’s more magnanimous moments, we sometimes joined in. Did anyone have their ears on?

But in person? That was another story. Truck drivers in person were large and loud and possibly a little bit dangerous.

Truck stops have rebranded themselves in recent years to the friendlier “travel plazas”. And why not. They have everything: showers, laundry rooms, hair salons, massage therapists, churches.

trucker chapel

trucker hair salon

For full-time RVers, not just heading out camping for the weekend, a truck stop can be better than an RV park: free parking, easier to get to, and all the amenities except maybe a view of the lake.

Truck stops are definitely better than Walmart parking lots because you wake up to freshly brewed coffee (10 cents off with your Good Sam card!).

The biggest rule is to stay out of the way of the trucks. When I’ve asked the clerk about overnight parking (which unlike at Walmarts and Cracker Barrels, you really don’t have to do), the refrain has always been the same: don’t block the lanes where the trucks need to drive, don’t park in one of their spots. Fortunately, my Roadtrek can park anywhere, so I can just pull into a quiet spot and I’m set for the night.

truck stop

But What About Those Massages, Really?

trucker massage

On the one hand, the idea totally makes sense. Truckers driving all day long surely have aching backs. But on the other hand…

I read on a trucker message board that they’re totally legit, with one guy providing the evidence that he only gets offered something extra about every 1 in 10 times.

So maybe mostly legit.

But What About the Showers?

I was talking with someone about truck stop showers and she was appalled. Taking a shower with all those truckers?! It turns out that trucker showers are about the nicest you’ll find on the road. Nicer than even the most luxurious RV park. They’re a lot like the showers in international airport lounges, complete with fresh towels (you have to bring your own towels to RV park showers).

truck stop shower

They’re each in their own room with a key. And they are not cheap. The going rate seems to be about $12.

Truck stops also have the best shopping, especially if you’re looking for cooking equipment powered by a car cigarette lighter.

kitchen appliances

Which sometimes I am.

The night after the hiking trail as road adventure, I drove from Colorado into Kansas. People talk a lot about how boring the Kansas landscape is, but I found it beautiful. Like a lemon sorbet after the dark, rich filet mignon with mushroom sauce that is the Colorado forest.


It was getting dark and stormy, with torrential downpours alternately with lighting strikes down to the ground just off in the distance. Was I supposed to stay in the car and keep driving? Was that safer than stopping? Was I going to get hit by lightning? Doesn’t rubber in tires keep you grounded or something?

I finally decided to stop at a truck stop with an attached Denny’s. The TV was tuned to the Weather Channel: Weather Caught on Camera. They were showcasing a storm in Colorado.

A clear reflection of our times, someone caught in a mudslide/flood had used his iPhone to record another vehicle that was sliding into what seemed like sure death and that footage was followed with video from inside the sliding vehicle, as that driver also was recording with his iPhone.

I decided that was the Weather Channel’s way of telling me I’d made a good decision to stop for the night.

Although it certainly made me realize I was lacking some inner fortitude in not recording my own near brush with road-based death the day before.


An Open Letter to Google Maps

Dear Google Maps,

You know how a million years ago when you first launched and there was no street view or anything cool like that and some Googlers thought it would be awesome to strap video cameras to their helmets and jump on mountain bikes to try and map trails?

Yeah. I think that data may have accidentally gotten mixed up with the data for the roads that cars can drive on.

Colorado is a lovely place. Woods, mountains, streams, cliffs – lots of nature is what I’m trying to say. And nature is really super cool. It is. Who doesn’t love nature?

I’ll tell you. Cars. Cars don’t love nature. Cars love roads. Put a car on a road and it drives along and it’s happy and the driver is happy and everyone is happy. Put a car in nature and suddenly the driver (that would be me) is trapped in one of those horror movies with shaky, amateur video on YouTube and ghost witches.

I was driving along a road in Colorado, admiring the lovely nature along the SIDES of the road. I checked my nifty Allstays iPhone app that shows me all the camping stops, complete with reviews and how many showers are available and found a KOA a couple of hours ahead. I called to make a reservation. The office closes at 9pm? No problem. I’ll be there WAY before 9.

Like a sucker, I followed the innocent-sounding evil voice that is Google Maps personified. Take this exit? Gladly! Turn down this road? For sure!

Wait, this road is dirt? That seems right. A lot of KOAs are a little out in the woods. I grew up in Oklahoma. I’m no stranger to dirt roads. Onward.

And here, Google Maps, here is where things took a turn.

It happened slowly, like in that apocryphal story about the frog in the pot of the ever-increasingly hot water.

The road kept getting rougher and narrower and rockier. The trees got darker and twistier. I realized what had once been a road was now a hiking trail, perhaps passable by mountain bikes. Not passable by RVs. The road was barely wide enough for one vehicle to fit. On one side, a ravine; the other side, a mountain. The only upside of being stranded in an RV on a hiking trail is that it’s unlikely another car will be coming from the other direction, effectively trapping you both forever.

I was ever so slowly climbing up a steep hill, bumping over rocks and tree branches and massive holes and no place to turn around. The “road” was washed out in several places; the terrain was so rocky that I worried the entire RV would bounce right off the road. Or the undercarriage would get smashed off and I’d be trapped there forever. Until bears ate me.

I’m sure I don’t need to clarify that my phone said “no service”. It got dark. I learned there are no street lights in the middle of horror movie nowhere woods.

And you, Google Maps. Adorable you. You were blinking furiously, unable to pinpoint a location.

It hit me then. This cannot possibly be the way to the KOA.

I mentioned there was no way to turn around?

I kept inching slowly forward, in the face of no other options. I finally found a slightly larger area where I could make an 800 point turn. And then I even more slowly went DOWNHILL down the same terrifying “road”.

I made it.

I made it!

I finally made it back to pavement and flat roads and cell service. It was just about 9pm. I called the KOA.

The woman that answered told me that the highway was closed due to a rock slide. I said that Google Maps had rerouted me through Yukon Gulch Road. “DON’T TAKE THAT ROAD.”

I told her it was too late.

I looked up York Gulch Road later and this is what I found, mostly on discussion forums for good hiking, four wheeling, ATVing, and dirt biking spots:

    • The road is suitable for a “high clearance 4 wheel drive vehicle”
    • “The road becomes very rough beyond the intersection of 739.1, 277.3 and 175.1. One major problem is that the road sign designations have been removed in a number of spots. This makes staying on the right road difficult. Also need to know that in many spots the road has become a dry stream bed and is washed out. With care and a good high 4X4 you can make it”
    • “Rocky and steep in places on the western half. Eastern half is rough in spots but easy. Side roads can be difficult. Roads are poorly marked and route-finding is challenging.”
    • ‘The following trails are for off-road vehicles only. Passenger vehicles will not be able to complete the trails”

I found meeting minutes from area that these roads are really:

“…old wagon and cow trails: and  “should not be considered “public roads” for property access. One problem has been the use of the wagon trails by 4-wheel and off-road vehicles over the years.”

And this great tidbit for directions to GOLF COURSE THAT GOES THROUGH A GHOST TOWN (!! Sorry for the all caps, but how awesome is that?):

“**** Do NOT use GPS directions that take you off I-70 at Exit #238 up York Gulch Road. Not passable. USE the Central City Parkway route.”

Also this from a discussion on a dirt biking meet up:


Someone posted pics to on a four wheeling discussion thread:




I took the road-based directions from the woman on the phone and got to the KOA a little after 9pm. The office was closed, but they took pity on me and my hands that were still shaking from the ordeal and gave me the golf cart escort to my site.

And in the morning, nature was beautiful again.


Anyway, Google Maps, maybe look to see if you’ve mixed up that old mountain biking data. Also, yes I realize I should have video taped the whole thing with my iPhone so at least I could have been a YouTube star, but I was too busy thinking I was going to die, and multitasking can be difficult when you have both hands glued to your steering wheel to keep your RV from bouncing off a cliff.