When I got out of the car, an older homeless looking man appeared, sweeping the parking lot. I said “Hello, how you doin’?” He looked over and said, “Every day above ground is a good day!” Then we both chuckled uncomfortably. And I’m always afraid that maybe that guy is the Grim Reaper. And I watch for him the rest of the day.
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WORDS AND PHOTOS BY JAIMIE MUEHLHAUSEN
Sometimes you need a reset. It’s not really a mid-life crisis. It’s not a vacation per se. It’s more of a soul rejuvenation. A breath of fresh air. And then another…and another. You work and give and you are owned by things. And people. And places. And if you can somehow free yourself from that, that feeling of obligation and responsibility, even if it’s just for a few days or weeks, it can lift you up and free your soul for a long time.
I had hit that point. I was empty. I hadn’t taken a real vacation for years. Oh, I’d gone to Vegas for a few days with the kids and visited family out of state. Good to get away, but there’s always a catch. This time was going to be different. This time I was going to go nowhere. I’m not talking about a “staycation” or some other tricky, hip, Facebook lingo for not leaving the house. This was about getting away with no plan; no pretense; no destination.
A trip to nowhere.
I’m a musician. Part-time professionally, but full-time in my heart. It’s what I would do if there were no reason to do it. Which is why I do it now when I am able. I make music and art because it’s simply who I am, not because of someone else’s wants or needs. I’m lucky. But often times it’s not enough to fuel me and I need to get away, off to nowhere. My original thought was to attempt to book a tour up the west coast. But that started sounding like obligations. What I eventually settled on was one gig, in Hood River, Oregon. My daughter lives there and it became the halfway point. The turnaround. Anything before or after Hood River was based on a whim or a random left turn. Or maybe an interesting looking exit with an old building off in the distance or a mostly empty Main Street. An old neon sign was more than enough to pique my interest and reset the course.
I left work after lunch on a Friday afternoon, headed home to pack up some clothes, a phone charger, my guitar, and a pillow and blanket for the backseat of the minivan. And, of course, my favorite hat. If you’re going to be pointlessly on the road for days at a time, you are going to need a road hat. Mine was won on Ebay a few years back, made by Stetson for L.L. Bean in the early sixties. Not in perfect condition, but perfect for me. I adorned it with an old Musician’s Union pin from the 1940s to pay my respects. It’s not a hat that will go out of style. Or in.
And with the packing done, I headed north from San Diego, towards Nowhere.
I knew I needed to get through L.A. before I could really consider myself “on the road.” L.A. traffic is always there, but some days you get lucky and you only sit on the finely grooved concrete for an hour or so. My CD player has a disc stuck in it…still. Every time you start the car it acts like it’s going to eject the disc, but it never does. They don’t really play my favorite music on the radio, so I mostly drive in silence. I eventually made it past the refineries of Long Beach, and past all the exits that sound famous to Midwesterners that don’t pass them every day: Sunset Blvd., Melrose, Wilshire. None more special than the rest if you’re just trying to get away. Finally, I hit the 101, headed west and exhaled as I spotted salt water and an old pier on the edge of Ventura. I turned up the left coast and, with no plan for a place to sleep that night, finally felt like I was off the grid.
When you get to the Pacific, you hit a stretch of highway along the coast that must be where they film car commercials. Winding and scenic, but still just a highway. Civilized and paved for your comfort. But, in the distance, you can sense freedom. It’s there. You can smell it. And if you keep driving north, you start embracing it. You’ve escaped your life and you start thinking about never going back. A coworker of mine had mentioned a beautiful little town along the way called Cambria: a small community with a good breakfast, a moonrock beach, and some funky shops to peruse in your new, timeless life. I decided to make that my first night’s stop. The sun had long set and my stomach was empty, so I pulled into Arroyo Grande, a small town about an hour south of Cambria, and I ate some dinner at the Rooster Creek Tavern. While finishing off my onion rings, I pulled out my phone and found an old school hotel in Cambria called The Bluebird Inn. I called for a reservation and the owner warned, “We go to bed at about 10:00, so if you can get here by then, we have a room for you. If not, I’m sorry.” It was 9:10 pm and I wolfed down the last bite of my burger, plugged the address into my phone and headed out onto the two-lane highway in pitch blackness. As I was coming into Cambria, I could vaguely make out the silhouettes of people in fields and hovering in the trees in the park. They were along the road and in front of some of the businesses, and I felt like they were Walkers, waiting for me to park the car and lock the door. I kept driving with purpose.
I pulled into the Bluebird at 9:59, the lobby door was still unlocked, and I breathed a sigh of relief. Free HBO, an ice machine, extra towels for the pool that closed in one minute, and a hot shower. I was anxious for my first night of sleep on the road, but also excited for a big breakfast and the first day of the rest of my life. Or at least the next week or so. I woke up uncharacteristically early and took the blue plastic hotel key fob back to the desk, checked out and walked down the sidewalk towards the downtown area. In the daylight, I could see scarecrows everywhere, dressed up for the annual Halloween Scarecrow Festival coming up the next few weeks. The Walking Dead had not come alive and haunted me, and I actually LOL’d at myself for being creeped out the night before.
After a quick look around town and one failed attempt at negotiating down the price of another vintage Stetson in the antique store next to the diner, I ceremoniously piled into the minivan and embarked on my epic journey. I made it about three miles. I almost immediately came upon a pier and a very far away view of the Hearst Castle. Sea lions were doing laps along the pier and I spent way too much time trying to get the perfect “sea lions are my friends” photo for Instagram. I had no idea that this gorgeous spot was just the first of hundreds that day that would call me to pull over for photo op after photo op, and a new desire to relocate someday in the future.
I slowly made my way north and into Big Sur. As a writer, you are looking for new ways to describe something that has been written about thousands of times before. The pure beauty, the picture postcard views around every winding corner. The amazement of how someone so many years ago, with old equipment and far less know-how, actually built a road along this treacherous path. And the homes built into the side of the mountains…who are these people and how did they afford to construct small compounds in these stunning locales and now live the dream, far away from the world? How did they figure out life so much better than I did? I popped another Orange Slice into my mouth and contemplated winning the lottery and attempting to talk one of these lucky bastards into selling me their life. How many millions more than it’s worth would I have to give them? Would I have anything left over for hamburgers? Just keep driving. Another Orange Slice makes it all better.
There’s a sign for Bigfoot up ahead and I don’t want to miss that. Who would? It’s a tourist trap, barely five feet off the side of the highway. Parking here was certainly more dangerous than Bigfoot himself. It’s overflowing with every trinket and doodad you can think of…with a Bigfoot on it. Sasquatch was here! I saw a Yeti and all I got was a lousy t-shirt. Bigfoot coasters and keychains and koozies and yarn bracelets and commemorative coins that don’t really commemorate anything other than the separation of you from your hard earned cash. I took a quick selfie with the chainsaw-carved Bigfoot statue out back and whipped back out onto the road. It There were many miles to go. If I wanted to. Or not. I was still on a trip to Nowhere.
I pulled into a pawn shop in Eureka, California and, when I got out of the car, an older homeless looking man appeared, sweeping the parking lot. I said “Hello, how you doin’?” He looked over and said, “Every day above ground is a good day!” Then we both chuckled uncomfortably. And I’m always afraid that maybe that guy is the Grim Reaper. And I watch for him the rest of the day.
When I was in college, I played baseball. Number one team in the NCAA actually. The summer after my freshman year, it was arranged for me to play with a team in Tempe to get some experience, and they were supposed to hook me up with a “job.” Wink wink. They never did. My roommate in our old ‘60s era apartment was Billy Hatcher, who went on to play for the Cincinnati Reds and was almost the MVP of the World Series one year. We were starving the whole summer because we didn’t have jobs or money, and so the coach would bring us not nearly enough groceries every few days. There was always a couple dozen eggs, and by the end of the summer we were sick of eggs. But, on a couple of weekends, we headed out in passenger vans and went on road trips to play teams from Colorado and California. We always liked those trips because we got regular meals every day. One of the weekends was spent in Santa Cruz. That was the weekend I truly figured out I wasn’t headed to the major leagues, or even the minor leagues. I watched a guy hit one of my curveballs so far, it was on its own trip to nowhere.
Being from Oklahoma at that time, I thought Santa Cruz was amazing. The smell of the salt air and the hippie mentality. Great memories all these years. So when I pulled into Santa Cruz on my “trip to nowhere,” my mind started racing back to the eighties and the Pacific Ocean and the hot chicks in crocheted halter tops. I was quickly jolted into reality. And reality was that, over the 30+ years since I’d been here, things had changed. For one, no one was crocheting their clothes any more. And the smell of the ocean was a little fishier than I recalled. I had planned that my minivan would work just fine for sleeping in a couple of nights on the trip, and tonight was one of them. I started looking for a place to park and the safest thing I could find was a Denny’s parking lot. I stacked up my pillows in the back seat and curled up with my blanket…mostly because I couldn’t stretch all the way out without curling something…and I attempted to get a good night’s rest. Or a few hours of sleep. Okay, maybe a couple of half hour bursts with my eyes closed in between homeless guys arguing and hookers whistling at passing residents. Luckily, Denny’s is open 24 hours, because by the time I just couldn’t stand another minute in the back of the minivan, I was hungry for…eggs. And that was the start of Day Three.
It was a little rainy and overcast as I left Santa Cruz, and there were lots of interesting things to stop and take photos of along the way. A small white church with a gigantic sign demanding that we all repent. Not just you and me…all of America. There were old theaters and hotels with cool neon signs and a small town sushi-to-go restaurant for lunch as I tried to keep things moving…those little packets of soy sauce are not easy to navigate at 80 mph. An abandoned drive-in movie turned metal salvage yard was another ten minutes. It was actually hard to keep moving along, and, even though I knew I had nowhere to be, I felt like something else was calling me to get going.
Many years ago, at the Oceanside Swap Meet, I found an old tintype photo from decades ago of a very dapper couple standing in front of an old stone entryway that said Dunsmuir Natural Springs. It felt historical and, for some reason, I contacted the Dunsmuir, California town historian through the mail (this was pre-internet). She was excited that I was interested in sending her the photo, thanked me profusely and said that, if I was ever up that way, I wouldn’t regret stopping in to visit Dunsmuir. Now, as I was cautiously cruising through the mist on my trip to Nowhere, a weathered, hand-painted billboard caught my eye: “Dunsmuir, Home of the Best Water on Earth.” I would regret not stopping. I exited and passed an old abandoned Ben’s Garage, and the winding road eventually turned past some scattered homes, a few buildings, and then five or six blocks of a downtown. Dunsmuir looks like it was thriving at one point, though that point was probably long ago. There is a really cool old theater with an epic neon sign still intact. Many of the buildings are now home to businesses that are probably quite different than the bakeries and women’s department stores they probably used to house.
But something seemed slightly magical about Dunsmuir. Maybe it was just the mist.
I wandered into a used record store, owned by a younger man who had relocated there to take the high school basketball coaching job on sort of a whim. In his spare time, he ran the record store and I was amazed to come across a vinyl copy of an album by the Dwight Twilley Band. Dwight Twilley Band was from my hometown of Tulsa and was a mid-70s power pop band with a top 20 hit. They were probably more influential than successful, much like an Alex Chilton. Growing up in Tulsa, the first graffiti I remember seeing was a huge, spray painted “Dwight Twilley Band” along the retaining wall of the expressway through town. It was there for years for some reason. And now, here on this road, Dwight Twilley was popping up out of nowhere. I didn’t even own a turntable back home, but I bought the album and went in search of the best water on earth.
As I was pulling into Yreka and getting ever so close to Oregon, I noticed an old, abandoned passenger train car. It was covered in some small town gang’s idea of graffiti, but you could still clearly see the Yreka Western Railroad signage on the side of the car. I pulled over for a photo (or 20) and thought, “This is certainly going to be a cool town to check out.” It was, but not in the way I thought it would be. Yreka certainly had its fair share of old neon and other signage, and some cool buildings. I wandered into a thrift store and managed to negotiate my way into a pretty nice cowboy hat. But have you ever heard someone describe a place as “methed out?” That was Yreka. Sketchy.
HANGING ON BY THE SKIN OF ITS TEETH...IF IT HAD ANY TEETH LEFT.
I’m sure there are other parts of town where the “nice people” live. But pretty much everywhere I turned, there were survivors that you wouldn’t even kindly describe as “characters.”
I did find a music store and figured, maybe in a town like this, there would be plenty of used guitar gear for sale; pawned or sold off for all the wrong reasons. They actually had a nice selection of guitars and amps and, coming from the back room, I could hear some interesting music being played. I curiously poked my head around the corner and there was a circle of local musicians jamming together and playing all kinds of bluegrass and country and original songs. They stopped and asked if I wanted to join in. I wanted to. I really did. It was early enough in the day, but I figured if I got started I would want to keep playing, and I might not make it to Oregon by nightfall. I sure didn’t want to end up in Yreka for the night. All of the hotels I had seen looked like they rented by the week or month, and I wasn’t planning to stay nearly that long. Most of their “residents” probably weren’t either when they checked in. I politely declined.
I had originally planned to make Ashland, Oregon a stop for the night. Visually, Ashland was the antidote to Yreka. It’s a theater town and a small college town. Plus, I have fun, interesting relatives there. I had been trying to contact them about staying the night to no avail, and, just as I was about to pull into town, I got an email from my cousin. “So sorry! We are out of the country! Catch you next time!” So much for Ashland. I kept the gas pedal down and shortly rolled into Medford. It looked like a good place for some lunch and a few Instagram photos. I had no idea I was about to eat at one of my favorite stops of the trip: Luigi’s Italian Sandwiches. One of those cinderblock gems that has been there about as long as you’ve been alive, and for good reason. I parked, walked in, and was greeted by the most sincere “Welcome to Luigi’s!” The place wasn’t much to look at, but the crew was having a great time, enjoying what they do and making people happy with good food. What should I get? “THE GARBAGE GRINDER!” was the loud response, as if I didn’t really have a choice in the matter. Five minutes later I was sitting outside, watching Medford traffic zoom by, and eating an amazing Italian grinder and one of those little pointless sized bags of chips. And a can of Mtn. Dew. Heaven. I want to drive back to Medford for one right now. Maybe it was the moment. Maybe it was the people. Sometimes a sandwich is just a sandwich, and sometimes it becomes the best damn sandwich you’ve ever had. And the difference is just a happy lady behind the counter, no obligations, and a great day on the road to Nowhere. Maybe I don’t want to drive back to Medford right now for another one because it will never be as tasty or timely as the one I had that afternoon.
Hell, there probably isn’t even an actual Luigi.
I fired up my Motel 6 app as I headed back out and figured Salem was as good a spot as any. Most people cringe when I say I don’t mind staying at Motel 6, but I have yet to have a horrible experience (as though that’s a ringing endorsement). It seems as though, at some point, Motel 6 hired a former IKEA designer to come up with a standard room design for them. They all have a pseudo-modern wall shelf/TV frame/towel rack unit on the wall and fake bamboo floors. And orange bedding. The TV works fine, the bathroom is clean, and I am not expecting an exotic resort experience for $59. My room key didn’t have a photo of the pool or a swanky lounge on it like some hotels. This one had an ad for the local Domino’s Pizza delivery. Well, now that you mention it, I’m getting pretty hungry again and I just kicked my shoes off. I’m in for the night. I called the number to order a pizza and soda and the guy asked for the address. I said I was staying at the Motel 6 and didn’t know the exact address, but there was an ad for his Domino’s on the key, so it must be nearby. Room 115. The Domino’s guy says he has no idea where a Motel 6 is and I’m going to have to be more specific. I ask him if maybe one of the other drivers knows? No luck. The motel with the Domino’s ad on every hotel room key is a total mystery to these guys. Finally, another driver came back in and said he thinks he knows where it is and not to worry. I’m worried, but mostly for the long term survival of these guys. I kid you not, eleven minutes later there is a knock on my door and my pizza and 2-liter Coke have arrived. I had to ask, “So, was it hard to find the place?” “No, it’s just a couple of blocks down the street,” he says as he points down towards the lighted Domino’s sign that I can now see from the parking lot. I’m truly just happy to have my pizza at this point and tip him a little extra for all the detective work.
Today was the halfway point of my trip, and my gig in Hood River was later that night. I made it past Portland and out towards Mt. Hood, when I noticed a sign for the scenic waterfall route. I think that if you’re on a trip to Nowhere and you see a sign for a scenic waterfall route, you take it. If I had done any research at all, I would have already known that this was the road to the famous Multnomah Falls and many other gorgeous waterfalls that would each easily be the most beautiful waterfalls I had seen if I didn’t keep driving down the road to the next one. The road itself is a stunning drive, with old mountain tunnels and beautiful Columbia River Gorge scenery. Coming from a desert climate at home, the amount of lush greenery and water-saturated air and land was simply beautiful. The waterfalls themselves are something you could just stand at all day long and never fully take in the beauty. The people watching at a waterfall can be almost as fun, with the number of selfies in front of the waterfall seemingly endless. I took a few myself, trying not to get my road hat too wet, and finally tore myself away. I checked into my first “nice” hotel of the trip, paying three times as much for a similarly clean bathroom, non-orange bedding and a TV. Hotels always seem like a waste of money to me. It was a Sunday night, and I was pleasantly surprised at the number of locals who came out to the gig. I played a solid three hours and savored every minute of it. People don’t always give a rat’s ass when you play acoustic guitar and sing in the corner of a bar. But this felt more like a mini-concert. People cared and that elevates the music. Some nights your voice is on point and others it works fine, but isn’t as good as you know it can be. This night at the Trillium Café in downtown Hood River was one of the good ones where everything flowed and every song sounded like a winner. One of those nights that keep you coming back for more.
Back in the ‘90s, I used to hang out at one of those local bars that pretends to be an Irish pub. Green carpet, a few Guinness signs, and some fish and chips on the menu. And that’s about as Irish as it gets. The cook’s name is still Jose. The crew that worked and hung out there at the time was an interesting menagerie, intelligent and future minded...not your typical neighborhood bar staff. One of the young ladies already had a double degree from William & Mary, and, in between trips to Africa that we all funded with our tips, was finishing up law school, soon to become the assistant lawyer to the regional federal judge. I’m sure there’s a way more important name for that, but let’s just say she’s super smart and her career doesn’t suck. One girl ended up an actress on a hit television series for many years. There were a couple of future lawyers and others who did well in fashion, opened businesses and did art direction. One girl moved to Portland and now has her own Bed & Breakfast in the heart of the cool part of Portland. Wait…aren’t all the parts of Portland cool? I contacted Cynde and asked her about staying at her place. She was amazingly gracious and invited me to stay and she would give me the tour of Portland. Of course, it was lightly raining, which made it all so much more “Portland.” Or maybe just Monday. After a tour of some incredible vintage furniture stores, we stopped at Hale Pele, a local tiki bar named the third best tiki bar in the world. I wonder what could possibly have made the number one and two best tiki bars better? The Hawaiian bread was maybe the best thing I’ve ever eaten (since Luigi’s anyway), and the cocktails were works of art; the kind of fruity goodness you could just keep guzzling like punch until you end up on the floor. And I would have easily ended up on the floor, but we had more to see. My second awesome purchase of the trip was a black velvet Jesus painting we found in a thrift store we wandered into. Later that year I tried to give away at a white elephant Christmas gift exchange. It was given back to me. Apparently you either really want a black velvet Jesus painting or you don't, and I was happy to have it back. As we were walking down the sidewalk, past a vintage furniture store, I spotted a needlepoint “Not Today Satan” in the window that would have gone perfectly next to Velvet Jesus if the store had just been open for business. Every shop and bakery and bar and restaurant and bicycle shop and clothing store look like they would be the coolest store in every other town. And there’s not enough time to eat and drink and try on clothes at them all. So you have to keep moving. Or you have to stay longer, and that was sadly becoming less and less of an option. The trip to Nowhere was winding down. After an amazing dinner and good night’s sleep, it was time to say my good-byes and quickly formulate a loose plan. I decided I would go whichever way Cynde suggested. She said head west young (at one point) man, and that’s what I did. I headed over to the Oregon coast and turned left. Headed home.
In every single one of these little Oregon beach towns there is a kite store. That’s how somebody makes their living and pays all their bills...selling kites. And string. That’s probably where the profit is. I left Portland, headed west to the coast, hopped on Highway 101 and headed south. I stopped in Coos Bay for gas and orange slices. I filled up my gas tank for $1.99 a gallon, complete with full service. Highway 101 was a two-lane road that meandered down the coast, past the Redwoods and through the countryside; it was pure beauty. I crossed the Golden Gate Bridge as the fog rolled in and I just kept going. I pulled into Los Angeles on the same Highway 101, but now it’s ten lanes across, with bumper-to-bumper traffic and gas is $3.99 a gallon.