A logical first stop for snowbirds returning from Arizona to the Upper Midwest is Tucumcari, New Mexico, a little town big enough for a McDonald’s but too small for a Walmart.
Having put on 608 miles across the back roads of New Mexico, I was plenty tired. I was ready to take whatever hotel room I could get at whatever price.
When I reached the counter, the lady tapped on her computer and found me the last room in the joint. “You don’t mind if there’s been dogs in there before, do you?” she said.
No, I didn’t care in the least.
Those in line behind me were turned away. I was glad I had jogged in from the parking lot past three couples with canes and walkers. Hustle pays off.
I knew I was back in small town America when the woman at the desk, knowing I was desperate for a room and knowing that she could sell the room to the three couples behind me, still tried to find a way to give me a discount.
“Are you military? AARP? Do you have AAA? Are you on business?” she asked, clearly inviting me to lie.
Being from a small town myself, I just couldn’t do it. That stuff comes back to haunt you, and I didn’t want to tempt fate.
So there we were, stuck in a typical small-town standoff: She wanted to give me a deal and I was more comfortable paying full price.
In frustration, she dug through the drawer underneath the till and eventually pulled up a wrinkled old coupon. “Ah ha!” she said, victoriously. “Look at this!”
So, I was given a third off on a room for which I would have paid full price.
From Tucumcari, the question which faces the returning snowbird is: How do you tackle the massive Great Plains?
The interstate highway system is relentlessly square. According to the computer, all the freeway routes are equal in mileage.
On the one extreme, you can go 1,000 miles north to Miles City, Montana, take hard right and head across North Dakota.
Nobody does that. There is no guarantee that a drive across North Dakota in early March will be pleasant.
At the other extreme, you can go 1,000 miles east to Oklahoma City, take a hard left and head 1,000 miles north. That makes more sense as there is less likely to be a winter storm on the south route than the north.
The only way to go kitty-corner is to take US Highway 54 diagonally across Kansas, then head north on US Highway 81. That saves a 100 miles or so, but adds time——and adventure.
Last time I took that route, I ended up in a desolate part of Kansas pumping gas out of a farm tank, leaving cash——and racing out of the yard before I got shot.
Adventure is fine, but when the homing instincts kick in, time is of the essence.
So, I took the south route, across the panhandle of Texas, through Oklahoma, up through Kansas.
Using Priceline, I got a room in an old luxury hotel in downtown Kansas City for even less than the nice lady charged me in Tucumcari. Bell boys hauled my bags and even offered to park my car.
At Kansas City, you jump on I-29, one of the loneliest stretches of road in the interstate highway system.
At least the northbound lane is. Who in their right mind wants to get from Texas to Winnipeg in March?
On I-29, you are lucky to pass a car or be passed once every twenty minutes. You see the same people at the rest areas and the gas station as you saw three hours before.
After the congested highways of Arizona, I-29 is bliss. It’s easy on and easy off for gas. The restrooms are clean. The coffee is fresh. The people are friendly.
I was surprised by the massive snow pack in South Dakota. As I drove north, it got worse.
When I stopped to pick up some milk in Fargo, the right-hand turn lanes were down to half-a-lane and you couldn’t see right or left due to the high banks of snow.
Even though I was glad to be home, it still hasn’t sunk in.
Today I went to town and saw a car with Minnesota plates. My first reaction was to flag them down and ask, “What part of Minnesota are you from?”
(Visit Eric's weblog at www.countryscribe.com.)