This is the McDonald’s by the Interstate in Barstow, California. It was somewhere in the vicinity of 10:00 in the evening, and I was, more than anything, comforted, as I saw those golden arches on the horizon as I rolled into town. Sure, I was exhausted (I had woken up in Las Vegas, played 18 in Boulder City, driven to and checked out the Hoover Dam, driven to Oatman, had a few pints with the locals and meandered West – a busy day), and tired (All of this nonsense began at 8ish? in the AM, and the thought of a nap at this point on the trip was but a dream. A wishful dream.), but more than anything, I was comforted. As I already intellectually knew, but now came to value through cold, hard experience, McDonald’s exists as far more than a restaurant, vis a vis the weary traveler. A haven for the vagabond, the rest stops in themselves are littered across our fair nation, and indeed the world, as deteriorated Big Mac boxes are littered across the parking lot across from Wrigley Field, and they really offer the traveler anything they might need beyond a place to sleep (although I suspect that sleeping in your car in the parking lot would be quite feasible at any given McDonald’s). A cheap bite to eat and a quick and cheap cup of coffee, tea or soda are likely the first things that come to mind. However, the value of hunting down a McDonald’s goes deeper than mere sustenance. Clean, public restrooms are in every store, and I am thoroughly convinced it is a policy of corporate for employees to simply look the other way when someone is clearly stepping foot in the restaurant merely to take a shit. Fast, accessible internet is also available in nearly every restaurant as well, and although I always bought a cup of coffee or a tea when I was planning to sit down and write for 2 hours, I’m not entirely sure it would be overly taboo to plop down in a corner and suck up that bandwidth. Yes, the faux-vagabond of the 21st century can do far, far worse than bouncing from McDonald’s to McDonald’s, and as my stops under the golden arches accumulated, I slowly started feeling all warm and fuzzy inside when I finally saw them again – I was nearly always in need of some of the amenities offered within.
On this evening however, it wasn’t food, drink, the bathroom or the internet that I sought, but merely a trip outside of the car, to stretch the old legs and plot out exactly what I was going to do for the rest of the evening. Upon entering the old re-purposed train station, my feeling of having been comforted quickly deteriorated into an overwhelming drowsiness. I stumbled through the store as in a stupor, and decided that I should get something to keep me up for the remainder of however long my evening would be. Historically, I had opted for a sweet tea – filled with sugar and caffeine, and plenty of ice to gnaw on once I sucked down the sweet nectar. In my zombie like trance however, I decided it was as good a time as any to use my monopoly game piece on a free McFlurry! ICE CREAM AT NIGHT WHEN YOU ARE TIRED!
I slumped over on an old waiting bench near the old boarding platform, and dug out my phone to determine what the next step was going to be. I was meeting a friend the next day for lunch in San Diego, from which I was a 3 hours’ drive north. I didn’t like the prospect of waking up only to drive for 3 more hours before meeting my buddy – I would surely not see any more of San Diego than the restaurant where we’d be going had I stopped for the night in Barstow… I was going to plod onward. My cup of ice cream was ready, and I was back to the road, no more awake, nor with the ammunition to become so, than I was before I entered.
I was on the road no more than ten minutes (about 8 of which were spent eating ice cream) before I recognized that I was simply not going to make it all the way to San Diego – I was just too tired. As I rolled through Victorville, I envisioned a heroic path all the way down to Temecula, or perhaps even Escondido. Hell, I would basically be in San Diego at that point! If you question my choice of the word “heroic” in the sentence two prior, I get you. I really do. My defense is simply that your goals change vastly when you have been on the road for four weeks, are still on the road, and are delusionally tired – getting to an impossibly far away destination seems like the struggle of a lifetime, and each minute is spent counting down the tenths of a mile until you can tick one off and exclaim to yourself “only 83 more to go!” Having given up on San Diego, Temecula or Escondido seemed brilliant – get there, and enjoy essentially the entire morning in San Diego.
I was still entertaining these thoughts of grandeur when I, as if on autopilot, took the first exit listing a Days Inn in San Bernardino. What was I doing? San Bernardino! I was still two hours north of San Diego! My brain fought valiantly against my body, attempting in vain to compel my arms to turn the VW around and trudge on south, but by this point my muscles had coordinated a structured and powerful mutiny against my brain. “Rest!” They screamed.
So there I was, in San Bernardino, still north of even Los Angeles, and I was stopping for the night. I groggily checked in, and took only my travel box to my room – no computer, no extra clothing. Just a box with some toiletries I wouldn’t use in the morning. Just a box that had drawn the laughter of many, and had stood with me as a pillar of stability during my travels.
For all that my dreams had promised me of California, here I was – miles from the coast, and miles from the sunny tranquility of what I had hoped would be the locale of my first evening in the Republic. “Sometimes,” I reasoned, “you’re the pseudo-vagrant, and sometimes, as tonight, Alex, you really are the 21st century vagabond.” I don’t even remember hitting the bed.