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Road Trip Disaster: Driving Endlessly in the Rings of Hell

Sal Santiago writes about travel, minimalism, art, philosophy, and living an alternative lifestyle.

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A few weeks ago I took a road trip from Northern Arizona down to Tucson. About a four-hour drive. I few things happened that I did not foresee, and that were completely out of my control. Perhaps I've become too lazy in my planning and my dependence on technology.

I was going down to Tucson for the 4th street festival. There would be art, food, music. I was feeling the need to get away, as I'm working a seasonal job in a tiny town in Northern AZ. Just a three-day weekend road trip. My plan was to arrive before the sun went down, as I don't like driving in an unfamiliar place after dark. From past experience, this can often set the stage for something to go wrong.

No cell phone service. Connection to civilization has been cut

After a late start, and the time on the highway taking longer than planned (getting past the massive sprawl in the desert that is Phoenix), I was starting to get a slight feeling of dread as the final rays of sunlight began to fade in the sky. However, it was a beautiful sunset, as it often is here in the southwest. Parts of the sky turning blood red and orange, and looking like a scene from a distant planet.

And soon after driving through the Phoenix metro area, my cell phone service dropped out. I thought it might just be that part of Arizona, and I was sure I would regain service as I got closer to the city of Tucson. That was not the case. I have AT&T, and in my experience working in a few somewhat remote locations, they have always been decent, with a wide area of coverage. Not sure what happened, if cell towers were down, but I had no cell service whatsoever.

An interesting predicament: I had no idea where I was or where I was going

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Now I had a general sense of the Tucson city layout, but without mapping from my phone, I would kind of be winging it, and heading in the general direction where I thought my hotel would be. I knew the name of the hotel, Extended Stay America, and the street it was on, Grant Road. And that it was in the general direction to the east.

Tucson, as I soon came to learn, can be a tough city to drive in. There are many one-ways, winding streets, multiple lane streets that are more like expressways through the city, and people there seem to love to drive fast.

Night had fallen, heavy desert darkness, and I was starting to have trouble reading the street signs. After a wrong turn or two, getting turned around and having no idea which direction I was heading in, I found myself on Speedway. I pulled over at a gas station to use the restroom and ask for directions. The restroom was out of service. I bought some trail mix and a drink, and explained how I had no cell service. The girl at the counter was kind enough to look up directions to the hotel on her phone. I was a few miles away in the opposite direction.

Another stop to find a working bathroom, and a wrong turn or two later, and after what seemed like forever, I miraculously came across the hotel. OK, I figured, I'm out of the woods, things should go smoothly from here on out. Things had gotten a little hairy, but I'd made it. I would settle in, get some dinner and a drink, relax and get some sleep after the long day of driving. Get an early start for the next day.

Just as I thought everything would be OK, things really began to go south. I tried to check in at the front desk, but they had no record of my reservation. I'd booked with Expedia, as I'd done a few times in the past, and figured there would be no problem. I did think it odd that I'd only received a text message confirmation after booking the hotel online, and there was no email. Still, I didn't think too much of it. It was a busy week at work, and it didn't cross my mind to follow up or double check about it.

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Now, this is a big hotel, a few hundred rooms. On a normal night, they might have been able to find a room for me. However, on this night, not only was it a Friday, it happened to be one of the busiest weekends in Tucson. With the 4th Ave festival happening, as I'd soon find out, most of the hotels in the city were completely booked.

So now here was my situation. My phone had no service at all, so I couldn't call Expedia to see what happened with my reservation and get a refund. I basically had no idea where I was, or which direction I was heading in. Just driving in a haphazard way, hoping to come across a hotel. It was getting later into the evening, 8pm, 9pm, 10pm. I stayed on busy streets, and by accident came across a few hotels and stopped. A few higher end places, but I didn't care. My budget was out the window. I was ready to pay more just to be able to get out of the car and not have to keep driving. I was pretty sick of it at that point, and thought perhaps I'd rethink any ideas to ever go on another road trip in the future.

Started to seriously think I might need to find somewhere to pull over, and end up spending the night in the car.

The same story at each hotel, they were completely booked. I got back in the car and continued with more random driving, no idea where I was or where I was going, or when the trip would end. I started to feel I had entered a ring of hell, completely trapped in a driving loop in the dark, and one I might never get out of. At one point I found myself outside the city, heading down a dark country road. Streetlights, and the road itself, seemed to be disappearing. I eventually found a place to turn around, so I could try to backtrack to wherever I'd been. All I have to do is survive until morning, I told myself. Then I will be able to see, and I can get out of town.

Started to seriously think I might need to find somewhere to pull over, and end up spending the night in the car. I kept an eye out for a location that might be discreet and become my abode for the night. Somehow, another hour or two later, and I got lucky and found the highway. I remembered that while driving in, some miles before reaching town, there seemed to be a few hotels along that road. Maybe 20-30 miles outside of town, I couldn't exactly remember. At least this was some kind of progress.

Before hitting the highway again, I found a Del Taco drive through. I was pretty tired and hungry at that point. It wasn’t the meal I had envisioned for my first night of a vacation, but it was badly needed sustenance. After more driving, I finally found a strip of hotels on the outskirts of the city. I breathed a sigh of relief, when the hotel I stopped at did have rooms available. It was about 11:00 pm or so when I finally checked in. Since it was a Friday and such a popular weekend, the rate for one night was about $200. Even though it was a budget hotel, where rates for a normal night were between $69-89 or so.

How quickly we go from enjoying a nice quality of life, to a state of pure survival.

I was done with driving, and didn't care how much it cost. They had a room available, and it would mean I wouldn't have to sleep in the car. I had a lot of plans for the weekend, going to the street festival, doing some hiking in Saguaro National Park. I needed a good night’s sleep and good energy to really be able to enjoy my time there.

I had already been thinking...this entire trip is a pain in the ass, and expensive, and why the hell do I go anywhere? I'm staying home from now on. The usual thoughts floating around in a road-trip weary brain: I'm done with this, I hate travel! I could've been home having a wonderful weekend relaxing, reading a book, listening to music, daydreaming. Instead, I was spending long hours in a state of high alert on the congested highways, dodging semi-trucks, and trying to keep from going off road into a ditch. How do people do this every day?

How quickly we go from enjoying a nice quality of life, to a state of pure survival. Actually, as much as I’ve complained about driving, the car was the one thing that didn’t fail me on this trip. I could’ve slept in it overnight, if the situation truly became desperate.

It did change my future plans. I had two other weekend trips in mind for the summer, but I decided to scrap those plans. The cost of rental cars, gas, hotels, and eating out was killing me. I'd hunker down the rest of the summer, stay home and save my money. On this trip I also came to the realization that I really don't like long road trips, unless someone else is driving. Or if I'm on a bus. At least then you can relax, read, spend the time watching the landscape roll by outside the window, take a nap if you want.

Two Good Lessons: Buy or Print a Paper Street Map, and Call the Hotel to Confirm Your Reservation

There were good lessons to learn and be reminded of. 1) Buy a paper map, or print one out, and have a better sense of directions, in case your cell service vanishes. 2) Always call the hotel to confirm they received your booking. There have been a lot of issues with 3rd party bookings at the tour company where I work as well, and in the future I'll call the hotel to confirm.

Rubbed the rental car's steering wheel and dashboard from time to time, thanking it for doing well on the journey, and encouraging it to keep going.

With a meal and a decent night's sleep, all was not lost. The weekend was salvaged. In the light of day, it was a different world. Enjoyed the vibe in Tucson and the xeriscape of many yards and parks there, and I got to Saguaro for a few short hikes. Though I did decide to leave much earlier in the day for the long drive back to Flagstaff.

I drove a little uneasily however. Still had no phone service. Rubbed the rental car's steering wheel and dashboard from time to time, thanking it for doing well on the journey, and encouraging it to keep going. In the back of my mind, I was just waiting for a tire to blow out. With no cell service, stuck on the side of the road somewhere, that surely would have been an awesome time, and an entirely new level of hell.

Things worked out in the end. I reminded myself I was lucky to have a roof over my head, and food to eat, and even being able to travel. It always could be worse. But after spending most of my weekend white-knuckling it on the highways, next time I will definitely think about flying!

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