Rhythm of the Road

2 sky and road

On the road again

Goin’ places that I’ve never been
Seein’ things that I may never see again

And I can’t wait to get on the road again
On the road again …

~ “On the Road Again” by Willie Nelson

We pulled into the familiar place, road weary and hungry, to be greeted by the waitress who may have been named Flo. Entering, we greedily eyed the rack of fresh pies in a stand near the door, then took our seats in the booth that looked out onto the bird feeder currently under attack by a flock of Juncos. The staff is genial, but not over-friendly, and the coffee and iced tea keeps coming as long as you can drink it.

Stuffed fish, deer heads and antlers, and an enormous moose head loom over the counter, and local memorabilia decorated the walls. The menu at the Oregon Trail Cafe in Baker City, OR is as familiar as your grandmom’s Sunday table. Meatloaf, fried fish, liver and onions, chicken-fried steak, chili, burgers and sandwiches — all the cafe food you could ever hope for. It’s a near perfect stop for a cross-country traveler and we time our trip each year to be able to stop there for lunch.

Just like Cappy’s, the place we stop in Rawlins, WY, the Oregon Trail Cafe is not obvious from the interstate, but you can get to it pretty easily on the business route through town. As a result, both places serve mostly locals, with a smattering of through-travelers. Comfortable, affordable and friendly, they each make for a bright interlude in a long and tedious drive.

We’ve been visiting the Oregon coast pretty much annually for several decades, and have figured out how to make the drive more bearable. It takes two long days from Colorado, and much of the scenery is, by now, old hat. But the familiarity takes the edge off the long drive, and gives us something to look forward to.

The interminable stretch across the southern Wyoming prairie is broken by antelope sightings, sometime scattered singly across the hillside and sometimes gathered in bunches near the roadside fence. The plains give way to mountain ridges, ranch houses and small Mormon towns — pretty and tidy but with little to offer the through-traveler.

The volcanic ruggedness along the Snake River plain in Idaho alternates with irrigated pastures, that attract swarms of small bugs. (Knowledgeable travelers bring along kitchen cleaner spray, since window wash does little but smear the bug guts across your windshield. I got a knowing smile and nod from a trucker at a service station in Twin Falls once when he noticed my preparedness.) From there we soon cross another prairie and range of mountains interspersed with lush valleys replete with grazing deer and flocking geese. The final run into Portland — and our favorite stretch — enters the majestic Columbia River Gorge with its volcanic cliffs, spectacular waterfalls, and the massive river flecked with fishermen and various boats and barges.

Distance driving has a rhythm all its own. I suppose long-haul truckers and those that travel all the time develop a sense of it that operates in the background, as unaware of it as we are of our own heartbeat. But we occasional travelers get to where we can feel it, feel the pull when we stop and the familiar urge to keep going.

It’s like being on a small boat in the ocean. After a while you get your sea legs, and the rhythmic movement becomes part of you, an unconscious beat. (Once after a day on the small boat, fishing in the ocean, a friend got off the boat, took a few steps and vomited. Seasickness wasn’t the problem — it was the stability of the land that did him in. Landsickness?) I’ve felt a similar rhythm riding horseback. The beat of the hooves, the rocking of the saddle, it gets into your metabolism and your body adopts it.

In the 1992 movie “Sneakers”, one of the crew is kidnapped and driven blindfolded to a secret location. Of course, when he is returned, he works with his crew to recreate the sounds he heard on the drive. A key element is recreating the rhythmic thuds from the seams from a bridge (ka-thunk, ka-thunk, ka-thunk …). I’ve experienced that sensation driving on concrete roadways, where the seams, placed at regular intervals, provide a somewhat pleasant rhythm — if they’re not too jarring.

When my wife moved to Colorado from Utah, we had our cat, Buelah, in the cab of the rental truck. Somewhere between Green River, UT and Grand Junction, CO one of the rear tires lost part of its re-tread, and every revolution of the wheel resulted in a jarring bump. It was annoying to us, but Beaulah, on the seat between us, just jostled and purred like a bobblehead toy (Poor baby!).

Most of the time the road sounds are comforting, sometimes actually lulling, so you have to be careful on those long stretches through Wyoming and elsewhere. It’s addicting, that rhythm in your bones, urging you to get back on the road again.

Maybe it’s time for another road trip.

Take it easy, take it easy
Don’t let the sound of your own wheels drive you crazy

~ “Take It Easy,” Eagles

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