Day One: Flowing Fanta & Mitch's Hitches

I walk into the Wendy’s in Moab, Utah, and the first thing I notice is not the menu or the customers or the backlit pictures of delicious Frosties above the counter. It’s the mustache on the cashier lady. First thing. My eyes are drawn to that ‘stache like it’s exerting gravitational force.

I’m standing in line behind an iffy biker dude with a t-shirt that says “Ride Like Hell” and has a picture of a freaky-looking wild boar riding a motorcycle with Satan on the back. I unconsciously take a step back, because my mom says the devil is bad. She's been wrong on other things, like when she said I'd like the movie Ghostbusters, but I think she's on solid ground with the whole Satan thing.

Northwest of Cuba, New Mexico, where the cigars flow like wine.
Meanwhile, an older Hispanic gentleman at the soda pop fountain can’t figure out where the water comes out. The cashier agitatedly hollers instructions to him loud enough for everyone to hear, but I don’t think Hispanic Guy speaks English. We all sort of watch him fumble with the machine, spattering lemonade and Fanta on his pants. I wonder if I should be the Nice Guy and travel the six feet required to help out Hispanic Guy. But as I ponder the metaphysics of a good deed, Satan Biker Guy steps around me and, surprisingly gently, takes Hispanic Guy’s cup, shows him the water switch, and fills the cup with ice and water before passing the full cup back to him with a smile. So, basically I’m a worse person than Satan Biker Guy. And also, don’t judge people by their shirts. Or lack thereof? No, probably you should judge people by their lack of shirts. Especially girls.

But wait. I thought all the fun was over at Wendy’s, but as I take my to-go bag an old, old, old guy shuffles in, bellies up the counter, and orders hot chocolate. It’s Moab, Utah. It’s July. Mustache Girl is befuddled, so Old, Old, Old Guy creakily leans across the counter and pushes the “hot chocolate” button on the cash register. He used to work at Wendy's as a less geriatric teen?

Lowlight of the trip leg: the northwest corner of New Mexico. You cross from rolling verdant hills in Colorado into a rocky dustbowl where every road sign is heavily graffitied. New Mexico even had to put up a new “Welcome to New Mexico” sign about 500 feet in front of the old one, because the old one has stylized graffiti covering up the slogan “Land of Enchantment.” And they just left the old one there.

Shiprock, Farmington, and Bloomfield, New Mexico, Indian reservation towns strung together by Highway 64, are a little depressing. Tired, squat old buildings sprawl along the highway, housing way more Laundromats and pawn shops and pay-day loan joints per capita than I’ve ever seen elsewhere. Local businesses like “Al’s Trailers” or “Mitch’s Mufflers and Hitches” (props to Mitch for coming with a kind of catchy business name) sort of loiter by the side of the road with dirty windows and guys smoking out front.

But New Mexico improves with south-ness and east-ness. Highway 550 climbs over the Continental Divide and falls down the other side into breathtaking, red-sand badlands, colorful hills, babbling rivers (all evidently called “rios” in New Mexico), and hardy scrub pine stands. Even Albuquerque, which I expected to be an unsightly smear of urbanity across a brown, dusty wasteland, was quite beautiful, nestling up against majestic mountains and boasting tasteful southwestern architecture and colors.
Plus, the Cherry Coke is better in New Mexico than in Utah. Well done, New Mexico, well done.