Friday, May 22, 2015

World Piece Kicks Off with an Epic Trans-American RV Road Trip

America the Beautiful -- as seen through an RV windshield.
If you are ever going to drive your RV cross country and get a severe toothache in the middle of a hail storm, the best possible place to pull off the interstate is Fruita, Colorado. Or so I learned on my way to Iowa this week.

The RV trip from LA to Iowa was part of my World Piece master plan. I would move out of my Palos Verdes guest house where I had spent the past 6 months, load up the RV with all my stuff, and drive to Iowa where I would put my things in my storage unit there. I would bring my dog, Jack, and leave him at my friend’s farm where he could spend the summer while I was circumnavigating the globe making pie.

Six months earlier, when I drove the RV to LA, stressed to the max from towing my Mini Cooper behind it (and from losing Daisy, my other sweet member of Team Terrier, after that coyote attack), I swore I was selling The Beast and that I would never drive it again. Not 18 miles, and certainly not 1,800 miles.

Bwwahahahahaha. As you may recall from my book, “Making Piece,” I also told my late husband, Marcus, when he first bought the RV that I would never drive it at all. Ever.

So yeah, The Beast started up on the first turn of the engine, and off I went, heading east.

First stop was Las Vegas to pick up my artist friend, Dave. (He is the same artist who designed the gorgeous World Piece logo.) Dave lives in Iowa now and he offered to help me drive. He is great company, tells entertaining stories, and can make me laugh until I cry. Which is something that will come in handy on this trip as I try to get my facial muscles to work again. I picked him up in Vegas not because I wanted to gamble — solitaire is the closest to gambling I will ever get — but because it was the closest, cheapest one-way ticket I could find at the last minute.  


After Dave offered to help drive, he texted me, “We’ll make it a little adventure.”

That made me look at the drive as less of a dreaded task (remember, I said I never wanted to drive the RV again) and instead I began to view it more as a fun mini-trip before my Big Trip.  Not that there is anything “mini” about driving more than half way across the USA in an RV. But when Dave said “adventure,” I should have considered that the definition of adventure is when things do not go according to plan.

The plan was to drive the RV to Iowa without incident and get there in the most direct and quickest way possible. But, to quote John Lennon, “Life is what happens when you’re making other plans.” This is what happened:

Near Disaster #1 


Dave’s flight arrived at 9:30PM. It was dark and there was a lot of traffic at the Las Vegas Airport. The Billboard Music Awards were going on, and god knows how many conventions. I had to maneuver the RV through lines of limousines and SUVs and convertibles to get to arrivals. I managed to butt my way into the left lane for the parking lot when panic struck. It didn’t take a sign that said, “CLEARANCE: 7 FEET” to know that I was going to crash into the low overhang. I slammed on the brakes and just as I thought I was completely f**ked, a jeep with flashing lights pulled up next to me. “Follow me,” he yelled. The sign on his bumper read “Airport Security.”

I followed his jeep as he cut across three lanes of traffic, parting the seas like a modern day Moses, and drove through to a quiet, cordoned off area that was marked “Employees Only. ” I pulled in behind him when he finally stopped.

“My heart is still racing!” I told him when he walked up to my window.

“Lucky I just happened to be driving by,” he said. And then he spent the next 10 minutes explaining the nuances of driving an oversize vehicle to pick up a passenger at LAS. As in, next time don’t. It’s a red flag for security. Even if the sides of your RV are emblazoned with giant lattice-top cherry pies. He directed me up to the departures area, where the clearance was high enough for my 11-foot-tall RV, but warned me that the “brown shirts” will shoo me away within seconds if I’m trying to wait.

I circled around the terminal and wound my way up to the departure level where, sure enough, there was a woman in a brown shirt approaching me the instant I pulled up to the curb. A long, dark-haired ponytail streaked with grey, she looked Hawaiian. And she was — wait for it — nice! Dave had already called and was making his way to the terminal. “My friend is on his way,” I assured her.

“Let me talk to him,” she said. “I’ll give him the directions to come out at this door.”

The next thing I knew, Dave was peering into the passenger window, which made Jack first bark and then wiggle with excitement, and made me let out a huge sigh of relief. We waved goodbye to the nice brown-shirted lady — those airport workers in Vegas are angels — and off we went. To the nearest Wal-Mart parking lot for the night.

Near Disaster #2 


I had made it the first 300 miles on my own without catastrophe. But together we had another 1,500 miles to go, and a few mountain ranges to traverse along the way. I normally drive the southern route from LA to Iowa, along Interstate 10, then cutting up through Oklahoma and Kansas. But I wanted a change of scenery this time. I also figured the third week of May was late enough in the spring that the weather in the Rockies would be fine. I had also calculated that even a little mountain rain would be preferable to dodging tornadoes along the southern route, which I had had to do the last time I drove east.

This is what a deluge of desert rain looks like -- from a safe distance.
That only thing worse than waking up in a Las Vegas Wal-Mart parking lot is waking up in a Las Vegas Wal-Mart parking lot to a sky filled with black clouds. I began checking my WeatherBug app obsessively. If there was a road that wound between the storm cells I would have taken it. Instead, we stayed on I-15 and headed northeast. Straight toward the darkness. We could see cloudbursts and lightning bolts all around us, but for most of the day we avoided the brunt of the storm. By the time we got to St. George, Utah, however, we were deluged by rain. In an RV with a leaking roof. Worse, the temperature was plummeting. By the time we got to Cedar City, we bailed on the driving and went to a movie.

The movie choice — mine —could be added to the Near Disaster List but Dave was a good sport and sat through “Hot Pursuit,” instead of “Mad Max,” which would have been his choice. I thought Reese Witherspoon could make any movie watchable. But even the stale, overpriced movie popcorn was better than the jokes in that film.

A break in the weather after the film lured us another two hours further down the road. To a truck stop near the junction of I-70. With only one restaurant, a Chinese place in a log cabin with wagon wheel chandeliers run by Mormons. There was no disaster in this, no food poisoning, no hot tea spilling on my lap. Just a really nice waitress who kept the place open 15 minutes past closing time to accommodate us. And a nice warm plate of Lo Mein before crawling into the cold RV for the night. Luckily, because I was moving all my stuff back to Iowa, I had 4 down comforters and 2 quilts between the two of us.

Last services for the next 116 miles includes pie!
Too bad we drove through on a day it was closed.
The thing about mountain driving is that the sky can be so clear and blue one minute, like it was when we woke up, and then you round a bend and see a bank of clouds looming above a peak ahead. Dave had been on storm chasing tours before and, much to my chagrin, he began explaining what was going to happen as we made our way across Utah’s remote I-70. (There are warning signs that read: “No services for 116 miles. No bull.” You do NOT want to break down out here. Or get caught in a windstorm in an RV.)

“You see those towering puffy clouds?” he asked, pointing dead ahead. “That’s called a cu-field. And you see those anvil clouds forming above them? That means the air is very unstable. It means trouble. If we were on a storm chasing trip that would be very exciting and we’d drive toward it.”

“We are NOT on a storm chasing trip,” I said without needing to.

I was driving. The road was winding between stunning red sandstone towers and rock formations, the beauty Utah is renowned for, but road construction had the highway limited to one narrow, winding lane. I could feel the tension mounting, and not just in the sky.
When you see a Runaway Truck Ramp sign,
you know you are driving on steep and scary roads.

Near Disaster #3 


As I was driving, I was chewing on licorice, and then switched to wasabi peas (from Trader Joes), to help me stay alert — and calm. The more stressful the driving, the harder I chewed. Until I hit a nerve. And I don’t mean that figuratively.


“I think I just broke the seal on my bridge,” I told Dave. Pain was shooting up into my skull. I held onto the side of my right cheek. And once the throbbing started it didn’t stop.

“Don’t catastrophize it,” he said. He wasn’t being dismissive. I know him. He meant well. He is the guy that can generate the calm in the direst of situations and he was just trying to keep me from worrying.

“No,” I said. “This happened to me 12 years ago. I know this is bad.”

My toothache was so severe I started to panic. Not only was it going to make the rest of the drive difficult, my mind was racing ahead to my World Piece trip. I was leaving in just 2 weeks. The anxiety, both physical and mental, escalated. “I need you to drive,” I told Dave.

We switched places and no sooner did Dave get behind the wheel, the sky cut loose. We didn’t have to chase the storm, the cu-field we had been watching grow had chased us. The blinding rain turned to hail. And if you’ve ever heard hail hit the roof of an RV, let’s just say ear plugs don’t even help. “We need to get off the road, Dave,” I screeched. “Take the next exit.” (I had been trying really hard not to backseat drive, but this was one time where I couldn’t hold back.)

The closest exit was for the town of Fruita, Colorado. We took it. We parked. And we plugged our ears as the hail continued to pound the roof like a musical accompaniment to my throbbing tooth. While we waited out the storm I started Googling dentists nearby. I called at least 4 places until I got an appointment just 30 minutes later. And not in the bigger city of Grand Junction just 10 miles down the road, but in this very small town (pop. 12,700) I had never heard of, never planned on stopping in.
Somewhere in between the rain, the hail, and Fruita,
a full arch rainbow appeared....An omen?!
The offices of Fruita Canyon Dental are impressive from the moment you drive up. New, modern, and made of stacked stone, the place appears immaculate. The kind of place where, if you had a dental emergency while traveling cross-country, you would be glad to find. And it only got better.

The receptionist was friendly. “Oh, you made it here fast,” she said. “I’m so sorry you are having a problem with your tooth.” I was immediately ushered to a dental chair—there must have been at least five of them, all in separate rooms, all facing out toward the one-way glass windows for a soothing view of grass and aspen trees. We passed a printing machine in the hallway that sounded like it was spewing out reams of paper, and I was told, “Sorry about the noise. That’s our 3-D printer that makes crowns in the office, so you don’t have to have temporaries anymore.” I was astounded to see such state of the art equipment so far off the beaten path. And then I was greeted by Jessie May, a young woman with her long hair wound into a top knot, her long eye lashes batting like a gentle doe. She was the dental assistant assigned to my chair.

Jessie took some X-rays of my mouth and while we waited for the dentist to look at them she probed me with questions. She asked me about my road trip, about Iowa, about pie. I gave her the abbreviated version, about Marcus, about the American Gothic House, about using the frequent flyer miles for World Piece. And then I could no longer hold back the tears. The difficult driving, the bad weather, the aching tooth….it was all too much.

Jessie handed me a tissue. “Life is about adversity,” she said, her eyes big, her smile warm. Then she shared enough of her own history with me to realize that she has had challenges of her own.

Reality bites.
Dr. Stegelmeier came in. He looked more like a snowboarder than a dentist in his bright orange plaid shirt and baggy Carhart-type pants, his face tan from being on the slopes. He looked at my X-rays, and pointing at my back molar said, “This tooth needs to come out.” The intensity of the pain had already indicated it, but to hear him say it out loud made me cry again.

“Can I call my dad first? He’s a retired dentist. I just want to get his advice.”

“Sure. I can talk to him too if you want,” Dr. Stegelmeier said.

I got my dad on the phone and then, to make it easier, I just handed the phone to the dentist. I tried to listen to their dental speak as their dialog switched to Latin names and tooth numbers. When my dad heard what would have to happen, he said, “Aw, shit.”

The dentist held the phone away from his ear, smiled and said to Jessie, “I like this guy.”

I miss having my dad as my dentist, but it meant so much to me to have him consult on my case. And anyway, from the minute I saw his high-optic glasses perched on top of his head I knew I was in good hands with Dr. Stegelmeier.

“Do you want to hold my hand?” Jessie asked as the dentist prepared to inject Novocain.

“Yes, but I’m afraid I’ll hurt it,” I told her, grabbing her outstretched fingers.

“No. I know you can’t hurt it, because my sister held my hand during five childbirths.”

After I was thoroughly numbed up, the dentist got down to business. He sawed off half of my bridge, smoothed out the remaining rough edge, and then yanked out my molar. All the while, I squeezed Jessie’s hand hard. It was over in less than 30 minutes. I would be able to go on my round the world journey, sampling food in every country, but able to chew on only one side. It was a small price to pay.

I went out to the RV and got a copy of “Ms. American Pie.” I brought it into the reception and signed it to Jessie May. “Thanks for holding my hand,” I wrote.

The receptionist looked at the cover and then at me. “Is this you?” she asked.

Biting down on the hunk of gauze inside my mouth, my eyes puffy from crying, my hair greasy from being on the road for 3 days without a shower, I nodded to say, believe it or not, yes.

The road to Glenwood Springs.
Dave and I drove straight to Glenwood Hot Springs after leaving Fruita Canyon Dental. The sky cleared so we went to the pool to soak in the mineral waters, a reward for surviving the near disasters.

“Jeez, Dave,” I said as I laid back in the steaming hot sulphur water, letting my body relax. “Can you believe it we found that dentist? I mean, if the hail hadn’t driven us off the road…” I shook my head. “It was a miracle.”

“The Universe worked it out. And it was better that it happened before you left the country.”

I tried to smile, but the right side of my face was still too numb and swollen to move. “That’s true,” I said.

Dave pulled himself out of the hot water, sat on the side of the pool and giving me his signature grin said, “And to think we are only half way to Iowa.”




RETURN TO THE WORLD NEEDS MORE PIE .COM