What It's Like to Drive Across Arabia (or "Just Me and Marco Polo")

A couple weeks ago I road-tripped across Arabia. Which is kind of cool, right? I mean, not too many people get to bisect the Arabian Peninsula. The three wise men did, and probably Marco Polo. But I doubt anyone else ever has except me. Maybe the guys from Cannonball Run, but hardly anyone else.

The impetus was a car purchase. On a day trip to Riyadh for work, I scoped a reasonably-priced ride that a diplomat was selling, test drove it on my lunch break, and then did what Americans do. I impulse bought. I flew back a couple days later with a computer bag full of cash, did the paperwork, and I was on the highway by noon with a foot-long Subway sandwich, three cans of Pepsi, three liters of water, a bag of Keebler cookies, a jar of peanuts, and a box of Cheeze-Itz. Only the essentials, people.

Beware ye scurvy travelers, er yerl walk the plank.
I confess to being a little ignorant as to whether it was legal, possible, or advisable to drive the 600 miles across the desert from Arabia's interior to the Red Sea. I asked around here in Jeddah and received advice ranging from "Take a set of battery-powered jumper cables" to "Don't do it, you will die." Google maps shows next to nothing on the long line connecting Saudi Arabia's two largest cities. Where would I get gas? Go to the bathroom? Buy overpriced country music CDs?

But as usual, reality is pretty benign. Ten minutes after merging with freeway traffic, I was getting the hang of switching lanes without signaling, passing on the shoulder, and honking and flashing my brights at cars that wouldn't get out of my way. Thirty miles out of Riyadh traffic thinned and I noticed that I could do 95 without anyone really noticing. Arabian versions of truck stops loomed out of the sand and rock every thirty to fifty miles or so. I stopped at one and had a Somali guy put air in my tires, stopped at another for food that in the end I opted not to actually consume for health and sanitation reasons, and stopped at a third to use really, really iffy bathrooms. The kind where you feel like it would be less gross to lay down in a used coffin than it would to use this bathroom.

I also passed a couple of settlements that could reasonably be called "towns" and several villages where the streets are made of sand. Everyone spoke more or less understandable Arabic and no one pushed me or punched me. It turns out Saudis are pretty nice.

Things did get a little hairy when darkness fell, the unlit road narrowed and turned serpentine as it wound down through the coastal mountains, and oncoming traffic didn't hesitate to use my lane for a passing lane. I almost died once when, in the pitch black night, the highway, with a speed limit of about 55 mph, suddenly and without any indicative signs made a virtually square, 90 degree turn. But I didn't die so I don't even know why I brought it up. 

So that's what it's like to drive across Arabia.