Brett picks me up early on the morning after Christmas. He drives a white 1989 Oldsmobile, which a friend's father told us we are crazy to be taking cross country. We follow familiar roads into Arkansas. I-40 West leaving Memphis is built high - the fields around here flood easily. We pass winter swamps full of downed cypress and deadwood. 

Around lunch, we make it to Conway, a mid-sized Interstate town that is home to Hendrix College and one leg of the University of Arkansas. We stop to eat at an empty and new-looking Greek restaurant, one of those places where the tables smell like bleach and they haven't had time to finish decorating. Our waitress is kind; asks us where we are headed. We tell her California. 

Bentonville reminds us of an out-of-season ski resort because of the proportion of nice restaurants, coffee kiosks, and upscale hotels to the presence of people on the streets. We make a cursory drive by the "Walmart Home Office." It is small and unremarkable, and looks more like an old high school than a corporate headquarters. In front of the Home Office there is a forbidding, conical, metal Christmas tree. Around back are two or three lonely industrial picnic tables with lunchtime views of the puddle-covered parking lot.

Our destination for the evening is Joplin, MO. After we arrive, past dark, we cruise around checking motel prices, and settle on one called the Road Site Motel. The Road Site Motel has a sign bigger than most of its rooms - a 1960s behemoth of old roadside advertising grandeur, red and black and lined with yellow lights. 30 bucks for a smoking single. After dropping our stuff in the room, we head out on the town. There's a lot of snow on the ground.

Brett stops to take a photo of an old auto shop where one light has been left on inside. The shop is the only business on the dark street, and the light left on within it is the only light on for a block. Brett snaps his photo and we trudge through the snow back to the car, only to discover that it won't start, and that we are parked facing the wrong way on a one way street. We ask a few passersby to help us jump the battery, but to no avail, and so we call a cab and try to get the car turned around. We sit in the car under blankets, waiting. 
A cab driver named Dave comes, with his wife riding in the front seat. We pick up a couple other people, and all of us ride around together while Dave tells us about how this Christmas was the first time that it had snowed in Joplin on Christmas in 30 years. One of the other riders asks us if we are church members. 

We walk across parking lots from the motel looking for dinner, jumping bushes and curbs until we get to a Waffle House. Brett orders waffle, eggs, hashbrowns in a pile. I put Neil Young on the jukebox and smoke indoors. We walk to the motel in the snow and watch old men comedians on the television as we fall asleep. 

In the morning, a tow truck takes us to the Firestone, where we drink weak coffee in styrofoam cups and talk to a middle-aged couple from Oklahoma. The wife is working on belated Christmas cards. We make conversation about roadside attractions (muffler men, buried Cadillacs) and our respective families. The husband sits with his hands on his knees, and the wife sits at his feet, leveraging her Christmas cards against the magazine table.

The mechanics tell us that we need a new starter and that it will take an hour to repair, so Brett and I walk to a nearby mall to burn time. Brett takes pictures, which attracts the attention of two clean-cut looking young guys, who approach us and ask us where we are headed and what we are doing. We tell them that we are headed to California, and, for the second time that morning, we are told "God Bless." We decide that Joplin is the nicest town in America. I take cell phone pictures of colorful things - Jesus figurines and plastic earrings - until the car is ready.


The food court is Route 66 themed.