—Steve Nahaj and his German fiancée, Susanne Lettenmeier, hit the road in search of the old west and, as always, golden truth. Article and video by Steve Nahaj. Music by Broncho.
It started in Dallas. We landed sometime around 8pm, snatched up our luggage, fussed with a rental car associate (due to some flaw in the contract) until I was nearly on my knees, trying to summon Barack Obama or somebody who could help us, and eventually, thankfully, we charmed the associate and were headed south to Austin.
The video doesn’t do the trip justice, really. It’s only meant to capture the essence of the whole thing. Movement. I wanted to show Susanne the canyon lands, the burning asphalt, a modicum of our vast network of highways and the yearning that’s always been associated with traveling along them.
In Austin, we stayed at a squalid motel somewhere along the highway, where we were greeted by a couple of perverted twentysomethings. The strange thing is that crucifixes hung throughout the lobby of this franchised establishment. It was as though management snubbed the corporate office and hired their local priest as an interior designer. “Right here, right above the check-in desk. And I want it to hang low with stale backlighting.” But we were only staying one night, so none of this mattered.
Come morning, we noticed an older couple sunbathing by the kidney-shaped pool and joked that people actually chose this place as vacation lodging. “Yeah. Looks good. It’s got a pool and those hallway vending machines. Let’s get a room between both.” But who am I to judge? I envy the ease that satisfies some. Heading into downtown, Susanne and I flocked to this place called Moonshine. Yelp told us to do it. We were happy to find a seat on the outside patio with people-watching-sidewalk-views and ceiling fans. It was sweltering—I wore jeans—and I remember questioning my choice of leg wear. They were already sticking to my thighs as I dove into my chicken and waffles. Susanne didn’t seem to mind, although she wore one of her frilly dresses, cool and bubbly in the early afternoon light. Besides, she was similarly drawn to her oak-smoked, beer-brined, Texas half chicken with Dr Pepper barbecue sauce.
We hung out in Austin for a day or two, watched the bats make their exodus from the bowels of Congress Bridge, saw a naked guy wandering around, donning bicycle as his sole accessory, and posed by a giant Mr. Rogers mural. These were the highlights. Especially the naked guy. We talked about that for awhile. I’m not sure why naked bodies in public fascinate so much. There’s strength in being foreign and taboo. As though our nakedness is a super power of sorts. I’m no nudist, but I believe in the magnet of the naked body. Susanne even took a photo. It looks great. Naked guy, pushing his bike right along Congress Street. Everyone is thrilled to see it. “Largest capitol building in the country? Meh. Where’s that naked guy? How’s he walkin’ around like that without getting arrested? What if children see him? How much confidence does one need to do that?”
The next day, Susanne and I burned south for Del Rio, Texas. I was really beating on that rental car. Not that I drove it through cactus fields or anything, but just slamming gas on the straights and bending tread along turns. Was fun. The Toyota had amazing speakers. We beat on those, too.
Del Rio was a one night thing. I’d forgotten about the military presence there. I’d also forgotten how conservative the town was. For some reason, I thought it was a sort of piñata town, brimming with bonhomie. Thankfully, we found haven at the Whispering Palms hotel, which offered psychedelic paintings of the Great Buddha and instant coffee. Next door: a Mexican restaurant with pretty waitress who rushed our quesadillas, tapas and margaritas with the speed of a maraca shake. The night ended with a trip to the local grocery mart, squeezed between plump men and women in beer aisles, plucking a six-pack from the shelf and going back to our room.
“You gotta stop by Marfa,” the receptionist told us in the morning, clanking bracelets. “Can’t be missed. You’ll pass right through on your way to Las Cruces.” So that’s exactly what we did, westbound on two-lane highways, squeezed like the night before. I started spouting off about aliens and Susanne grew weary: “Where are you taking me?” The receptionist told us to do it, remember? That’s who’s guiding our trip: Yelp and receptionists. Sure enough, one of the rest areas featured an alien-watching station. We blew right past it, straight into Marfa, where we nabbed a seat at Food Shark, next to an abandoned school bus and parked classics. Susanne was looking light and bubbly again in her flowery dress, as if nothing mattered, her eyes robust. Hummus. Something. Something. Can’t remember what we ate. I’m no good at these things. Check Yelp for specifics. I was focused on the oddity of the neighborhood. Man with long hair walking his great dane, pausing to chat with the bespectacled barista, who stood perched behind the counter of an Airstream trailer.
Then off we went again, jumping onto I-10, signs for Las Cruces, when suddenly the sky decided it was time to descend upon us with hailstorm hellfire. Pelt, pelt, WHACK! Smacking the roof and window, leaving roughly ten feet of visibility. Fuck, I squinted, and activated the 4-way flashers, holding pace behind an RV. “Look at it piling up on the road,” I said to Susanne. All crystal and snow-globey.
SScccrrrrroooooooooo— SMASH!!! WHIP.
“Shit, shit, shit,” I huffed. “You okay!?”
The beating engine was still idling, defying the impact. I turned off the car. The hail ceased. I tried to open my door, but found that it was pinned shut by a work truck, and behind it, a jack-knifed tractor trailer. I rolled down the driver’s side window and crawled out, steadying myself on the slippery asphalt. Traffic whooshed past, nearly clipping our front bumper. “C’mon!” I cried to Susanne. “Climb out the window, I’ll grab you.” She did, and so began the remainder of our evening: bickering with the other drivers, whisked away by an ambulance, nursing a badly swollen thumb, neck, headaches, and blackened bruises to appear in the coming days.
A state trooper picked us up from the ER and escorted us to a nearby hotel, situated next to the garage where our poor Toyota rental (that we clamored for) was towed. It looked bad. Rear end smashed, tires folded inwards. Grateful to be alive, but wondering whether we’d continue west. If I were looking at all this from a metaphorical standpoint, I thought, then these things are to be expected. We picked up our belongings, including two unbroken beer bottles from that Del Rio mart, drank them, and slept.
I groaned in the morning and toddled outside for a cigarette, watching the trucks barrel ahead on the distant highway. Rush, rush, rush, I thought. Susanne met me outside and lifted up her shorts, revealing the aforementioned bruises.
Hours later, a replacement car was delivered to us, and we were aching towards Tucson, burning to make up time, wincing at our missed opportunity to explore Las Cruces. Ouch, ouch. Ah. Ahhh. Every imperfection in the road caused pain, which ultimately caused us to stop in Deming, New Mexico for a pharmacy run and lunch. Lunch was, in Susanne’s opinion, the “cheesiest ravioli she’d ever eaten.” I can attest. I had the same. We laughed about it. Laughing felt good. Sort of.
I won’t bother to talk much about Tucson. Not because it isn’t featured in the video, but because it’s changed so drastically since I’d last been there (2009). It was perplexing. The city had lost its artsy desert vibe and moved towards the posh and metropolitan. And it’s got this trolley thing that runs through town, which causes giddy UA students to scatter drunkenly. Anyway, Susanne and I were in tremendous pain this night – barely able to walk – but well enough to appease our appetites at Diablo Burger and find humor in this exchange:
[paid parking lot, speaking to passers-by]
“Excuse me. How does the parking system work here?”
“Just park, turn off your lights, lock your doors, have fun.”
“Oh. Ok. Thanks.”
The following day, we went to peruse the cactus fields at Saguaro National Park, and were not disappointed. This was one of the best parts, commented Susanne, despite the “traumatic yesterday”. Cacti, stretching for miles, and growing upwards into sandy hillsides and cloudless sky. A nearby hitchhiker, on bicycle. Why? We didn’t question it. Some people don’t feel like moving in this kind of heat.
Next came Flagstaff. We headed north, traversing what felt like four climate zones, straight into the pines and deciduous trees. It was all very picturesque and cool enough for rolling down windows and listening to Zachary Cale. Susanne kept looking over at me with her blue eyes, and I assured her we’d survive to see San Francisco. Our Airbnb room in Flagstaff was located in a house owned by a couple of older folks; the nicest people you could come across. They immediately shoved maps and guidebooks into our hands, including one that outlined local craft breweries. Meandering through downtown, Susanne began to feel sick, and said that it was likely due to the elevation and temperature change. Truth be told, it was cold, and the trains ran loud through town, creating a sort of nausea effect that didn’t pair well with our dinner stouts and oozing pot pies.
But our host, Michael, served omelets in the morning and we ate those. There was no question about it. We would need energy for our jaunt to the Grand Canyon and, beyond, Vegas. The Grand Canyon was just as you’d expect: marvelous with vista views and Chinese tourists. Best of all, the road leading to the canyon was bordered by clothing/jewelry/pottery stands and the Native Americans that I find so incredibly fascinating. There’s never enough time, or at least, one must prioritize time.
Skidding into Vegas at dusk, the neons were just flickering on. Susanne and I felt more pain than ever from the terrible accident and therefore stuck to short walks along the strip. We kept looking at the sky because there was supposed to be a Blue Moon or Orange Moon or Blood Moon or something. The main reason we wanted to see it was because it wouldn’t occur for another X number of years. I began to realize that this was a silly reason and we went to bed with a small bottle of Cabernet.
KISS pounded the speakers at our morning mini golf adventure. We were the only ‘golfers’ there, save for a small family. The course was illuminated by black lights and we proceeded to follow our glowing balls up Gene Simmons’ tongue, down buckled fretboards, straight to the end, where Susanne relinquished victory by two holes. Then off to brunch, a death wish mishmash of eggs, hash browns, gravy, and cheese. We could have easily shared one plate with leftovers remaining. I’d forgotten how large American portions
appeared were compared to European equivalents. In this case, there was no equivalent. This meal had a mind of its own.
Next on our list was Los Angeles, and I was particularly lead-footed because I used to live in L.A., and couldn’t wait to get back to see how it hadn’t changed. I was sure it hadn’t changed, just as I was sure the palms would sway, and the smog would veil the cityscape like a burst vacuum bag (a strange comfort). Mostly I was happy because I could finally show Susanne a part of my life; of what I still felt existed within: the dream, the scene, the lust for a final frontier. Before touching down, however, we were tempted by a sign leading to Calico, an abandoned mining town still mostly intact. Here, we kicked around for a bit, got dusty and dizzy walking through the “Tilted Room” (Google it), and jumped to and fro in search of shade.
Upon arrival in L.A., we settled into our temporary Silverlake abode, admiring silhouetted views of East L.A. and obscured Hollywood sign. For awhile we just sat, realizing that our adventure would soon come to an end, and we’d been rushing around like a mad old couple till now. There were no signs of traffic or tarmac, and the little dog that roamed the property eventually came scratching at our window, calling us back to action. We kicked off our experience with a trip into Hollywood for cocktails and a general perusal of the Sunset Strip. The following day, we drove a loop starting on the 101, cutting across the canyons into Malibu, then down PCH, with a stop at Santa Monica Beach for a more honest sunset tour. Then more drinking that night at my old haunt, The Red Lion Tavern, a German-themed pub with Oktoberfest decorations and an elite selection of brews. 5500 miles from home, Susanne was finally home.
Our final night in L.A. was spent in Downtown, where, after cramming pizza in a fluorescent hole in the wall, we met up with my good friend Bryan Stage, vocalist and guitarist for My Satellite, and his pal Andy Marshall, of Resident Peasant. They were gregarious and ready to tell their own stories from the road, which Susanne and I sat listening, finally progressing to music and literature-based discussion over cigarettes and Sazerac laughter.
On the final leg of our journey, northbound to San Francisco, we made sure to stop at roadside viewing areas to gaze down at Big Sur’s magnificent coast. It was one of Susanne’s favorite stops, made all the more special by an impromptu break for dinner and beer shortly after the woods grew arcane in our October night. The food was delicious and I had a feeling of fondness for Big Sur; of tenderness for the contrast that existed between mountains and sea.
Our lodging in San Francisco was odd. We were required to bring our own toilet paper, and left mat-less on what might’ve been the slipperiest tiling I’d ever laid foot on. One bed, two end tables, plumbing. That’s what we got. But it was plenty cheap by SF standards and we only planned to sleep there. Most of all, we knew that we’d spend most of our time at the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass festival, a bonus find that complimented our sparse itinerary. So after touring Chinatown on the first night, pressed to find a good bar, and still a mystery on why–with all our Yelp skills–we couldn’t, we slept, tried not to slip, and awoke in the morning to tease our taste buds at a local café before heading off to said Festival.
After circling for 45 minutes, we landed what appeared to be the only parking space in a one mile radius of Golden Gate Park: a 20 minute walk from the event. Seemed we’d already forgotten how lucky we were to be alive, boiled back down to First World complaints. Awwww. And we forgot to bring sunscreen! Screw it. We arrived in time to catch Gregory Alan Isakov performing in whitewashed afternoon sun, a strange juxtaposition to his melancholic crooning, which typically conjures up images of dusted railing and Ball jars. But we accepted it with enthusiasm, inhaling trails of pot smoke and nearby food trucks. It went like this from stage to stage, and eventually we met up with a fellow audiophile, Fabrice Ducouret, a filmmaker, animator, and designer of the Runaway Poets logo. Sean Simerly was also roaming about, and we made sure to catch up with him. I met both of these gentlemen artists in Paris and was happy to introduce Susanne, as with Bryan and Andy nights before.
And that’s basically how it all went down. The highlights anyway. Susanne boarded a flight to France the next day, and I booked it back to Texas to return our rental (take that, $500 one-way fee).
Maybe you’ll read about the rest in my next novel.
About the Author
Steve Nahaj has spent the past decade wandering throughout the US and Europe, which has provided a platform of experiences for his autobiographical fiction novels. His adventures include one year traveling via 18-wheeler and another living in Paris, maintaining a narrative focus on coming-of-age absurdity and mindfulness in our hyperactive 21st century. Steve has published two novels, Welcome to the Abyss and Other Lives for the Desert. He is also the creator of the Runaway Poets web series, and a regular show producer. You can follow him @nahajguy