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22 Hours to Arizona

For most of my enlistment I was stationed seventy miles east of Kansas City where the hay farms were plenty and the people were few. My uniform was always dirty with the grime of maintenance work I carried out on Whiteman Air Force Base, where B-2 bombers rolled by daily. It was early spring of 2015, and I hadn’t been home to New England in almost two years. I hadn’t been beyond Kansas City in almost two years.

Howard Sherman was an elder Technical Sergeant at Whiteman and my good friend. Our mutual love for everything automotive made us close despite a large age gap. Preparing for retirement, Sergeant Sherman pulled me aside from my day-to-day routine of oil changes and mopping and asked if I would be interested in helping him transport his car, a Scion FR-S, to his intended retirement destination in Tucson, Arizona. I looked down at my arms soaked in motor oil.

“Any excuse to get out of here,” I replied.

My friend, however, proceeded to add one caveat: we would get the car to Tucson in just one day. Tucson was 1300 miles away.

Frugal as ever, Sergeant Sherman had no intention of wasting money on lodging or losing any additional days of his leave to travel.

“No problem,” I said.

A few weeks later, Sherman in his white Scion came to collect me from my dormitory. I wore beat up Onitsuka Tigers and a loose Bob Ross shirt— I was going to be living in a car with two seats and hard suspension for over twenty hours straight and I dressed for the occasion.

Sherman climbed out of his little coupe a giant man with a big smile. He sported basketball shorts and Adidas sandals which, amazingly, never hindered his ability to perform heel-and-toe downshifts and other skillful pedal work he perfected on the famous Nurburgring during his assignment to Germany. With Sherman behind the wheel, we set off around noon west toward Tucson, the hay farms of central Missouri becoming the office towers of Kansas City and the towers becoming the empty expanse of Kansas across the border.

My opinion of Kansas was established after seeing the rich green fields stretch flat to the horizon with big clouds looming over and the highway that carved a winding path through the rolling Flint Hills. I’ve driven through the humble state twice now and was neither time disappointed.

It was nighttime when we reached Oklahoma City. Sherman held an energy drink and the orange street lamps revealed the bags under his eyes. From there we entered the northern tip of Texas, passing through chicken farm communities where the smell was all encompassing and the only people to be found were manning the register in each town’s sole gas station. 

Around Amarillo, near the New Mexico/Texas border, the house music and Red Bulls that fueled Sherman began to fail.

“Let me take over?”

“Okay,” replied Sherman, who had declined at least three times prior.

We ate gas station sandwiches, fueled the car, and resumed with me driving and Sherman resting. Near Cannon Air Force Base in Clovis, New Mexico, I turned onto US-70 West and put the throttle down. I kept the radio quiet and the car as fast as it would go. The only view for dozens of miles was the pavement caught in the high beams.

Some distance later my stomach turned sour.

“We just passed a town,” suggested Sherman.

I u-turned and drove into what the road signs stated to be Roswell.

“No way,” I said.

I believed it when I saw the neon green alien merchandise in the gas station. I bought a ginger ale and we drove through silent Roswell at 2 AM with the windows down, the desert air cool and dry. Downtown was decorated with grays and UFO mock ups. We were fifteen hours into the drive.

Further west on US-70, I entered a snaking section of slow highway. I would drop a gear and accelerate through the long corners, the boxer four engine producing a satisfying burble through the upshifts. However, the twisting road proved long and repetitive. I stopped the car, exhausted after hours of corner after corner in the pitch dark. Sherman replaced me and within five minutes, the road straightened out and the sun began to rise.

Sherman took us the rest of the way, past Alamogordo and lonely Holloman Air Force Base, past Las Cruces and into Arizona, where I watched mile long freight trains crawl through the desert off the interstate.

We arrived in Tucson late morning. We did it in 22 hours.

We maneuvered the dusty, bug covered Scion onto a steep driveway where Sharme and her baby daughter greeted us. Sharme was an old friend of Sherman’s and she welcomed us into her home.

“You guys look exhausted!” she said.

I showered, shaved, and tossed my Bob Ross shirt into a hamper. Rather than rest, I spent the day exploring Tucson from a rented Nissan. The scenery was unlike anything I had known in the Midwest: giant cactuses, vast desert, and high mountains. I ate at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base and drove alongside the boneyard, an enormous outdoor collection of decommissioned aircraft. F-16’s, B-52’s, and even giant C-5’s were among the planes parked neatly in rows on the sand, abandoned and waiting to be called back to service.

I returned to Sharme’s that night and was promptly attacked by her little daughter wielding a foam sword. I fell asleep late, sitting upright and watching Pokémon with Sharme’s little girl while she beat me further with her sword.

In the morning my bag was repacked. Sherman was happy and I was happy to help, but I felt restless, like I needed to travel even further from Whiteman and the work there to be satisfied. I said goodbye and set off alone toward Las Vegas in my Nissan.

Sherman’s car was already washed and spotless again, gleaming under several coats of premium wax.  

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