Standin' on the corner

Nary one-10th of the way into our 400-mile odyssey, a shrill call emanated from the backseat.

“McDonalds!” the young boy screamed as if he had just seen the second coming of Sponge Bob himself.

Reluctant to pull over, I shot my co-pilot a sideways glance.

“We promised,” she reminded, as parental guilt took hold. Soon, we were whipping a U-ie in downtown Cortez and bee-lining upstream for the Golden Arches.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s not that I’m a fast food pushover. In fact, quite the opposite. That’s right, I’m one of those moms. You know, the ones who pride themselves on the fact that their 5-year-old has yet to step up to that shiny counter, order his first Happy Meal or sink his baby teeth into the deep-fried mainstay of modern day culture.

But in a state of desperation, eager to bribe him into the backseat for five hours, I had made a deal with the devil – or, in this case, a red-headed clown in a yellow jumpsuit.

“OK – but we’re not going in,” I plea bargained as my co-pilot graciously offered to do the honors. She soon returned with the forbidden booty, which was devoured like syrup on an ant hill and expectantly followed by the trademark side effect.

“I have a tummy ache,” groaned a little voice from the backseat.

And thus began family Spring Break 2008, minus the spouseman who had been given a hallpass in favor of his mother, who was in dire need of a winter respite. With “Schoolhouse Rocks” rockin’ the DVD, we pointed the luxury sedan south to Phoenix, where my mother and sisters were converging for a three-day estrofest. Think “Thelma and Louise” meets “Dora the Explorer.”

Anyway, with time to spend, we opted for the scenic route, with Winslow, Ariz., as the first destination on our tour de Southwest. Soaked in the faint remnants of fry grease and the reluctant new owners of a $20 sand painting and a standing invitation from its creator to drop by the next time we were in Tohatchi, we arrived at La Posada. The historic hotel was once a lavish Harvey House, a chain of hotels located at 100-mile intervals along the Santa Fe railway. However, it fell into disrepair until being rescued from the wrecking ball by its current owners in 1990. Anyway, in a throwback to Hollywood’s (and the hotel’s) heyday, all the rooms were named after 1930s and ’40s film stars. Full of giddy vacation optimism, we checked in, hoping for a John Wayne or Betty Grable. Alas, we would be rooming with Jane Russell, which at least was better than Shirley Temple. After dropping off our bags, we set out for the hotel watering hole and toasted frosty martinis to our good fortune thus far. Other than a minor discombobulation at the Gallup turnpike and a few false barf alarms, we had arrived in one piece.

But as we awoke the next morning and prepared to say goodbye to Ms. Russell, the queen of the 18-hour hold, she had other plans. Of course I have to blame it on her, because otherwise the actions I am about to disclose would be far too damaging. Let me start by pointing out that the vehicle in question was one of those fancy European jobbies whose initials stand for “Beware Mombrain While (operating).” Anyway, by the time I had slammed the trunk, all clothing, food and provisions, safely trapped inside, it was too late – we were the latest victims of the Jane Russell 18-hour hold.

No sooner had the trunk slammed, than I realized the horrible error of my ways. In my zeal for trip-packing efficiency (some would call it OCD), I managed to pack everything superbly, including the only set of car keys. With coldsweats building, I franticly padded my pockets and tried the trunk and every door, twice, to no avail.

Noting the familiar tortured tourist dance, a man standing nearby offered condolences.

“You didn’t just … ?” he inquired sheepishly.

I cut him off. “Yep.”

“I’m sorry,” he offered.

But not as sorry as I was – and I was about to get much sorrier. Upon breaking the news to my fellow travelers that mommybrain had struck again, there was a small ray of hope: Triple A.

When the blue tow truck pulled into sight, I anxiously waved it down. A young man with slick dark hair, wearing “Nick” on one breastplate and “Ford” on the other, emerged. Must’ve been a slow day, because he strung me along for a few minutes before delivering the prognosis. “Sorry, ma’am, but I can’t do anything. Says right here.”

He pulled out a small, spiralbound manual, which was opened to the page for impossibly fussy feats of German engineering. “TOW ONLY” it read in large, block letters. “You’ll have to get it towed to a dealer. Nearest one’s in Phoenix, ’bout a three-hour drive.”

Seems that although any moron with a slim jim can pick a domestic or Japanese car in minutes flat, this particular breed was tougher to break into than a Bavarian fortress. Bidding Nick farewell, I took matters into my own hands, and soon had “Mike” on the case. With cigarette dangling, I could tell he didn’t have “tow” in his vocabulary. He reached into his truck and pulled out what must’ve been the Triple A anti-bible. He leafed through until he found the page, complete with grainy step-by-step photos, and set to freeing the Beamer. Alas, not even Mike and his secret weapon (“I made this one myself,” he confided, gently cradling the shiny piece of metal) were able to break down the Berlin wall of electronic gadgetry.

Seems our ultimate driving machine was ultimately dry docked. And after a humbling 911 call home, we had nothing to do but wait for our knight in shining Armour All to arrive with a spare key from Durango.

So much for Thelma and Louise, things had suddenly devolved into “Dumb and Dumber.” And for anybody full of romantic notions of the Wild West, forget it. No offense to the good people of Winslow, but there’s a reason Glenn Frey was standing on the corner: there’s not much else to do there (that is, after you’ve visited the “Standing on the Corner” bronze statue and competing “Standing on the Corner” T-shirt traps.) In fact, by the time we had surveyed the “Public Market” (who knew Mad Dog 20/20 came in so many flavors?), hit up the only coffee joint within walking distance and made an offering or two to St. Francis, about the only thing left to do was hang around and wait.

So, hoarding the last bag of Jelly Bellys, we found a comfy perch on the La Posada veranda and took to what seemed to be the only pastime for road trip refugees such as ourselves: watching the trains go by. And with the high desert sun on my face and “Take it Easy” rumbling through my head like the Burlington Northern, I couldn’t help but wonder. What would have happened if that girl in the flat-bed Ford had locked her keys in the car?

– Missy Votel