Monday, May 23, 2011


Wanderlust + a fear of flying= Road trips.

And that's good thing because I love driving, and I love seeing my country from down here on the ground.

For the last 2 years, in December, I've driven to the Grand Canyon. I'm already making my plans for this year. Yesterday morning I was looking at my Rand McNally 2011 Road Atlas, which now bears the tell-tale blue fine point Sharpie lines of my most recent trip. It's a duplicate of the route I took in '09, and will take again this winter. It's a great trip, and there's something about driving 3500 miles in the week between Christmas and New Years that just strikes one of those chords inside me.

Traffic is light leaving Chicago on Christmas Eve, which allows me to cover all of Illinois and Missouri. Oklahoma and Texas are a breeze on Christmas Day, and Tucumcari, NM to Flagstaff,AZ on the 26th has become one of my favorite 550 mile runs. Absolutely breathtaking. The reverse commute, believe it or not, feels somewhat different. It's the same damn roads, the same towns, and yet when traveling east it just feels different. Maybe it just because I'm heading for home.

US 55 leads to St. Louis. There, you grab US 44 and cut diagonally across Missouri, northeast to southwest. Then comes the stretch from Tulsa to OKC, where you catch US 40, and you head straight west. That road will take you to LA if you stay on long enough. As you make your way west, you are repeatedly reminded of the history of our country by the "Route 66" signs that pop up on the frontage roads that run alongside the modern interstate. Prior to the Eisenhower Interstate System, Rte 66 was the only way to travel from Chicago to LA. Well, there were other ways you could go, but 66 was the route of choice. The Mother Road.

For the last 2 years, my layover on Christmas Eve and on New Years Eve for the return has been Joplin, MO.

US 44, Range Line Road exit, gas station at the bottom of the ramp to top off for tomorrow morning, liquor store on the left, next to a Macs, my hotel 3 blocks west just short of the Rte 66 Historic Business District. Fred & Red's is a landmark, as is Dale's Historic 66 Barber Shop.

Bonnie & Clyde hid in Joplin in 1933 for a few weeks until the locals tipped the cops. After a gunfight that left 2 cops dead, Bonnie & Clyde escaped. But, they left their camera behind and the Joplin Globe published the pictures it contained, some of the most recognizable pictures of the crime duo ever taken.Joplin was booming at the turn of the 20th century. Railroads and mining. In the early 1900s, Joplin was a metropolis compared to other towns along 66. That changed when the Ike Interstate System replaced 66. Time she marches, eh?

The place has this heartland vibe happening that is impossible to describe. You take one look at Joplin and you just know there's a Dairy Queen somewhere with a bunch of Joplin High School kids hanging out there on hot summer nights. I love Joplin, and I've only spent 4 nights of my life there. Christmas Eve twice, New Years Eve twice.

Knuckle Tattoos checked me into my hotel again this year. His name is Rob, but Knuckle Tattoos just fits better. Last year I was a little taken back by the guy working the front desk, but appearances can be deceiving and that's certainly the case with Knuckle Tattoos.They can't be from prison. There's no way that guy has done time. So why the hell would anybody pound ink into their knuckles? Oh well, to each their own.

"Hi, I'm here to check in. I have a reservation. Name's Kenney."

"Welcome back Mr. Kenney. I see you've requested a ground floor room, smoking, with internet access."


"You're on the west side of the hotel, and you might be able to pick up the signal from the coffee shop. It's a hot spot."

"Oh, well thanks Rob. How about we try that first, and if I need the card I'll come back."

"Good plan."

"Liquor store across the street open on Christmas Eve?"

"Open on Christmas Eve, and Christmas Day until 5."

"I'll be gone in the morning. Heading for the Grand Canyon. 1200 miles to go."

"That's a beautiful drive. You should have light traffic too because of the holidays."

"That's the plan my friend."

"Good plan. Want to leave a wake-up?"

"No thanks, I travel with a clock."

"Well you have a good night Mr. Kenney, and a Merry Christmas."

"Thanks Rob."

I don't know why exactly, but there's something about physically visiting a place, even briefly, that makes it part of the mosaic. It becomes a part of my life. That's the deal with Joplin and me. Can't say I really know anyone there, but the mere mention of the town, all 50,000 residents, evokes a feeling of familiarity. Feel like I've come to know the place and the people.

As I was watching the Bulls game last night, with Twitter up on the netbook, I saw the NYT break a story that broke my heart. "Tornado rips through Joplin, MO. 12 confirmed dead."  Oh fuck. I thought of Rob Knuckles.

And this morning, I scoured the internet for updates. 89 people killed, and that number may rise. Jesus Christ. An article from HuffPo caught my eye. Randy Turner, English teacher from Joplin High School. High school gone. Hospital trashed. Between 50-75% of the entire town damaged. A swath of destruction 6 miles long and almost a mile wide. That pretty much covers the town. The photos are gruesome, and I'm sure that as the stories start emerging from the rubble, I'm going to feel like someone stabbed me in the throat again, like I did last night and again this morning.


Keifus said...

It's another downside to flying, by the way. Most of the time you never get past the cultural bubble of the airport. Dallas is just like Chicago is just like Seattle. Chain restaurants, newstands, and a peculiar boozy desperation. It blows.

Never like to see lives crumpled up and tossed away like that. And yet part of me is thinking if there's gotta be devestation, why couldn't it have been Branson already? (Since it's a thought experiment, let's assume they had a chance to evacuate Yakov Smirnov, Andy Williams, and everyone else first.)

Michael said...

"Hey Tony Orlando, play Far, Far Away!"

Some of the satellite images are just remarkable. The before and after stuff. The death toll is 125 right now, but judging from images like these it's a miracle anybody lived through the thing.