When in a single weekend you find out that the IRS is garnishing your wages and that your new guy, who said he was going to Poland, actually went to Uzbekistan and got married for money, what’s there to do but skip town for a while?

Lucky for me I had the means: my roommate, Hilary, got an offer to work in Los Angeles for the summer and didn’t want to drive out alone.

We decided we’d take our sweet time getting to Cali, stopping along the way to sniff the cacti. I’d stay in LA for a few days, then fly home. We spent about a week planning our course–generally following old Route 66–and were particularly excited that we’d be spending at least part of 6/6/06 heading south through New Mexico on Route 491, which until three years ago was called Route 666.

Two nights before we left, hanging out at the Chinatown club Red-I, we ran into two Art Institute students we sort of knew named Jamie and Natasha and invited them to join us and some other friends at our place for an after-hours party. When we started talking about our trip, the girls, who’ve been friends with each other since high school, made puppy-dog eyes at us. They seemed so cute and innocent we couldn’t resist inviting them along.

We picked them up at 6 PM in Hilary’s already overpacked 1997 Honda Civic, gibbering with the giddy excitement that precedes most cross-country trips. But after an hour of unabashed gossiping about boys, we didn’t have all that much to say to one another. The car stayed mostly silent until we got to Saint Louis, where we met up with Mahjongg bassist and electronics wizard Hunter Husar–who’s staying there with his mother for a while, studying for the GRE–just long enough to throw back some disgusting pina coladas.

Hilary did most of the driving–we didn’t let the girls behind the wheel, and I’m a total pussy about driving at night or on a highway under construction. At sunup we crossed into Springfield, Missouri, where we saw a sign for Fantastic Caverns, the only drive-through cave in North America. We figured we could park our car inside, where it was cool and dark, and sleep for a couple hours before cruising through Oklahoma to Texas. Turned out the only way to get inside was on a guided tour in a wagon hitched to a Jeep. We did it anyway, gawked at the beautiful limestone formations, and napped afterward on picnic tables outside.

In Santa Fe we stayed with a hot married couple, friends of Jamie’s parents. The husband, a professional artist who works with human and animal hair, entertained us with stories of a Native American man named Gabriel who took him and his buddy, a famous actor he didn’t name, on vision quests where they drank something called Deer People tea, tripped their faces off, and gave Gabriel chunks of their shoulders as flesh sacrifices. The wife, a professional photographer, drove us around in her kick-ass 1965 Cutlass and took portraits of us all.

We wound our way up narrow, one-way dirt roads in the Jemez Mountains, screaming like we were on a roller coaster. At the top of one peak we found a hippie commune and herbal healing center called Sweetwater. As instructed by a hand-painted sign, we pulled up to a mound of cacti and honked. A dog came barreling toward us, snarling and barking; a weather-beaten woman with long gray hair and a camisole that said FBI followed. “This ain’t a motel,” she said exasperatedly, sizing us up in our designer sunglasses and high-heeled sandals.

We convinced her we were into the rustic thing, and she led us to an adobe building full of crude bunk beds, no ladders. She explained the rules: throw a can of dirt into the toilet after using the bathroom, pick up after yourself, and don’t be wasteful.

After agreeing to abide, we drove around looking for the hot springs rumored to be about a half mile’s hike away. Carrying beach towels, a video camera, and a bottle of eight-year-old whiskey, we traipsed through the woods like we were at Disneyland, hoping to find our magical destination before sundown. We never did. But we did find something almost as good: a group of teenagers riding skateboards in the park who got us high behind the library. That night we made elaborate headdresses out of beads and feathers we’d picked up in Santa Fe.

Before we started this trip, I hadn’t considered how spending 12 days in close quarters with near strangers might start to get really fucking annoying. I started the trip feeling like we were all friends. By the second day I felt like Jamie and Natasha’s cool aunt. Soon I was more like a bitter mother, locking the car doors when the girls forgot, doing the idiot check every time we left a hotel or a crash pad to make sure they weren’t leaving anything behind. They sat in the backseat eating candy (including some nasty shit that you spray into your mouth), calling their parents and friends to excitedly report every single thing they were doing (“Natasha bought a Hawaiian beer cozy!”), and giggling madly. After about four days I wanted to throw their cell phones out the window and ground them.

The low point came on 6/6/06, in Gallup, New Mexico, where we picked fights with one another all day about totally meaningless things–one was over whether this one guy we all know gets his jackets tailored–and never got around to doing the magic rituals we’d bought fake blood and black candles for at the party store. Instead we ate a gut-busting meal of fried pickles and mashed potatoes at Applebee’s. Outside the restaurant the girls started chatting with a sketchball vagabond who said he was Navajo. In the five minutes it took me to round them up and get them into the car, I’m pretty sure he managed to pick my pocket. By the time we got to the Wigwam Motel in Holbrook, Arizona, where we stayed in a tepee made of stucco, Natasha was throwing up and we all wanted to kill each other. It was an evil day after all.

The next day we got to Sedona, Arizona, where my cousin Jen lives in her van with a 20-pound quartz crystal named Charlie, and everything was immediately sunnier. Sedona is a happy place, a new age mecca full of people with flowing hair. Jen introduced us to her friend Kelly, who makes raw vegan chocolate out of organic heirloom free-trade cacao from Ecuador. For two days we stayed at the home of a Reiki master, next door to a guy who makes what he calls Vortex Chai and built what he calls the world’s largest crystal wand–a tree embedded with stones, gems, and quartz.

It was a nice break, and a needed one, because things were about to get way evil again in LA. More on that next week.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Liz Armstrong.