By Susan Wilson
Guest Columnist
Oak Bluffs, MA, USA

Six thousand miles, 22 states, many great meals, some less than great; amazing scenery and long stretches of less than amazing scenery. My husband, David, and I set off from Woods Hole (we never count the boat trip from the Vineyard) on July 31st and made our way out West in the best tradition of cross-country adventure. Of course, my idea of adventure is spotting a novel roadside attraction. That and arriving safely at our accommodations before dark, and not having to track down a good restaurant.

Susan and David Wilson at Lanes Motor Museum, Nashville, Tennessee

Rough experience had taught us that knowing where one is going to lay one’s head down at night is a prerequisite to a successful trip. On our first trip across country, we naively thought that we’d just get off the highway and get a room at a good hotel chain. We dawdled in Niagara Falls, then got back on 90 West heading to Erie, PA, pulled off at a large, well-lit chain hotel and, guess what, no room. The semi-helpful desk clerk called around the area but there was literally not a room available for a hundred-mile radius. What the dickens could have been going on in Erie, PA, that had all the rooms booked? 

Okay, this is where road trips become interesting. We were told, and have no reason not to believe, that there was a twins’ convention being held in the vicinity. A very popular twins’ convention. Who knew? Now, mind you, this is years before phones were information appliances. I sat in the passenger seat while David kept driving, making phone call after phone call from a list the semi-helpful desk clerk had given me. What I ended up with was a half-star chain motel in Warrensville Heights, Ohio, with one room left. A hundred bucks for the night. It was already past eleven. We had been driving for ten hours and I just wanted to lay my head down. Until I walked into the place. When your desk clerk is behind bullet proof glass, it gives you pause. The fact that the clientele handing around outside the building in the middle of the night seemed a little, how should I put it diplomatically, umm, sleezy, also gave us pause. Nonetheless, the idea of sleeping in the car at a rest stop seemed worse. Until we got into the room. 

Threadbare doesn’t even begin to describe the place with its ripped-out microwave and missing hair dryer. Towels so thin you could see through them if you had the temerity to actually use the shower. In believing that laying on top of the bed and using the aforementioned thin towels as covers would be better than getting between the see-through sheets, that’s what we did. I’ve since learned the nastiest place on a motel room bed is on top of the covers. 

Grand Canyon rim

This most recent trip, our third cross-country, and I was armed with the Best Western app and we planned our accommodations from our first night in Wilmington, Delaware to Santa Fe (where we broke away from Best Western and plumped for two nights in the venerable St. Francis Hotel in the old town). Beyond to the Grand Canyon, Zion National Park and Moab, Utah, we went, with foresight and the comfort of knowing that a bed awaited us at the end of a long day of driving and sightseeing. When you reach a certain age, certainty is bliss. 

But, then, there are detours. Twice we had to leave the major highway for reasons other than deliberate destinations. The first time was in Virginia when there had been a major accident up ahead and the DOT helpfully lit up the alert signs with notification of it. Having a travel app on the phone that ensured we wouldn’t actually get lost getting off the highway, we decided that taking an alternate route was fine. We meandered (at fifty miles per hour) along the back roads of Virginia, admiring the lush-looking farms, the smoky vapor rising amid rolling hills. We would have seen some of this from the highway (which itself is pretty scenic) but being on secondary roads meant that I could admire gardens and the way the road wound through the gentle hills. To be one with the scenery, instead of glimpsing it in between breaks between tractor trailers. 
Interstate 70 toward Moab, Utah

The second detour was perhaps more stunning scenery-wise but a whole lot scarier. We’d made the turn East toward home upon leaving Moab, Utah, and were sailing along Interstate 70 with a Best Western just beyond Denver, Colorado, our evening’s destination, making good time, expecting to be settled before dinner. When we got off in Grand Junction for a break, we were advised by the clerk behind the counter in the travel center not to get back on the highway. This summer was, if you recall, the summer of wildfires and the interstate was closed a few miles up ahead. We should get on the state road and beat the detour. Maybe it was good advice, we’ll never know. 

We got on Colorado State Highway 133 and began to work our way around the Grand Mesa National Forest. Little towns, strip malls. Farms, factories. A near death experience.  

We’re going along at fifty, maybe fifty-five, two lanes each way either side of a grassy median. I’m in the right-hand lane. A guy in an SUV coming out of a side street suddenly thinks that he has time to cross our two lanes to the break in the median. Well, he didn’t. Let’s just say that we stopped, the driver next to us stopped, and that’s what matters. We were close enough to see the horrified expression on the guy’s face when he realized he couldn’t make it and it was only by the grace of God that my ABS system worked and that there was no one behind me.
Heart stopping, but we’re okay. We don’t pause, we keep going. We shake it off. Blood pressure finally returns to normal. We continue on our way. At times like these you have the sense that, somehow, God isn’t done with you yet. That there is something else you are supposed to accomplish in this life. And then you wonder if, had the worst happened, would your kids wonder what the heck you were doing on Route 133 in Paonia, Colorado? Either way, we were soon beyond Grand Mesa and the wide, fast road abruptly narrowed to a country lane leading through McClure Pass into the Rocky Mountains. 

I come from New England, a pass is something Tom Brady throws. This pass was a mile-high, switchback road through coal country. Still, we were making progress. That is, until we encountered road work.
The highway man holding the stop sign is dressed all in gray except for the reflective vest. A dull white hard hat over long gray-streaked hair. Fairly tall, at least as viewed from the inside of a low car. His most distinctive characteristic is a long white beard, a la Gandolf. Or maybe, we joke, he’s been holding that sign for so long that his beard has grown to epic lengths.

Finally, we are released from our highway department-imposed stasis and we make our way higher and higher into the mountains. Tight, narrow curves, steep drops, houses perched on ledges, and a shallow river below. Beyond and above us, real mountains. Beautiful country, but not friendly. Remote. Claustrophobic. We don’t even take pictures. 
Maybe half an hour later, we encounter another construction delay. It’s late afternoon now, and we’re getting tired. We still have a lot of driving to do before we can lay our heads down. We’re on scenery overload and no longer comment on the views. We sit, sipping the dregs of coffee purchased a hundred miles ago.
Ah, finally we’re moving by inches. Then feet. Woo Hoo! 

And there, turning the sign from “Stop” to “Slow” is…the same man.
We stare at each other. Maybe we did die. Maybe we’re in limbo, or, Hell. How is this possible? I don’t want to be dead yet. And I surely don’t want relentless delays inflicted by a bearded old hippie on a winding mountain road to be my eternal experience. 
We drive past Gandolf. We try not to stare. Do I imagine that he winks?
One of us says: “If we see him again, we’ll know we’re dead.”
There was a silent fifteen minutes when neither of us was sure that we were kidding. 
All of the planning, the calculation of travel times, making advance reservations—playing it safe—suit my personality. But maybe the deviations make for better stories.

Susan Wilson


Susan Wilson is a New York Times bestselling author. Her newest novel, Two Good Dogs, was published in March 2017.


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