The voice inside kept saying: Don't fly to the Super Bowl. Drive. Get in a car and push from Los Angeles to Houston. Stop along the way. See the country. Talk to people -- about football and life. To my surprise, the bosses agreed. And so I went. Here's what happened.
DAY 1: Tuesday, Jan. 24, 2017
Location: Los Angeles
Miles to Houston: 1,682
9:15 a.m.: "Enjoy your drive to Houston," says the kind old man at the Hertz counter who wants to know why anyone would be driving one-way from LAX to Texas. "I tried to find you a good car. Can you score me two tickets to the Super Bowl?" I tell him that my powers are very limited in this area and thank him for my vehicle, a silver Nissan Altima.
9:27 a.m.: First stop: picking up my friend and travel companion, John Gonzalez. He offered to drive with me the entire way. He is a writer and reporter and excellent company -- and armed with an open calendar. Which helps. Gonzo packed light. Wearing a T-shirt and carrying a simple duffel, he asks: "We won't need a coat, will we?"
With zero authority on the matter, I assure him we won't.
10:15 a.m. A U-Haul zipping down Cloverfield Boulevard has its back door wide open. Piles of loosely packed wooden furniture bob back and forth, threatening to tumble onto the street. We pull alongside the vehicle and Gonzo informs the father-and-son duo inside about the pending disaster. They are thankful. Five minutes in, this trip is a public service. We're on our way.
Location: Needles, California
Miles to Houston: 1,435
2:22 p.m.: Long hours burning east. As we veer toward the California border, thick clouds replace the sun. The sea breeze is a memory and the land morphs into a sparse, flat expanse of greens and browns. Brush and burnt shrubbery all along Interstate 40. We zoom past a stalled earth mover. Lonely trucks dot the road ahead. There's nowhere to stop. Nothing to see but pure earth. Raw power. An ad reader on a distant radio station tells us: "There's something for everyone at the Riverview Mall." We'll never know.
Location: Yucca, Arizona
Miles to Houston: 1,396
3:02 p.m.: We spot something ahead on the highway: A massive, golf-ball-shaped orb painted white with little portholes and windows above a staircase that circles around it to the ground. Beside the structure rests a low-frills minimart advertising beverages and homemade beef jerky. Gonzo rocks off the highway toward this fantastic sideshow.
Inside the minimart, the man behind the counter says hello. His name is John Grady. He opened the store eight years ago and tells me about the 40-foot-tall ball outside.
"It used to be my mother's house. She lived in it from 2005 to 2012, or so, and then she moved out," Grady says. "We've remodeled it and we're going to open it up as a museum for UFO and government black ops type things. And also a gift shop. It's not quite ready -- but it's almost ready."
"I love the fact that they went from 4-6 all the way to the NFC Championship Game]," Grady says. "People counted them out, but us [Packers fans would never give up on them."
"No," Grady says. "Once Aaron Ripkowski fumbled, I thought the game was over. When you watch the Packers for a long enough time, you kind of get a feel for when they can come back and when they can't."
Before leaving, I ask Grady if -- like Aaron Rodgers -- he believes in aliens. After all, the homemade jerky is stamped with images of extraterrestrials.
"Do I believe that there's life on other planets? Sure. Do I believe that they've visited us? No," Grady says. "I think a lot of it is probably governmental stuff, all these sightings that people claim? They're probably governmental."
I file this place away as one of the odder outposts on any highway anywhere.
Location: Kingman, Arizona
Miles to Houston: 1,372
3:30 p.m.: Thirty miles up the road, we stop for lunch at a roadside spot called the Canyon 66 Restaurant and Lounge. Gonzo orders coffee and apple pie. I ask for a veggie burger, which feels like a massively suspicious order in the middle of the American desert.
We're sitting at the bar eating our lunch with a collection of senior citizens wearing winter vests and sipping on beers. The bartender is a man named Douglas David Borthwick. Originally from Northeast England, he's been in the States since 1982 and holds strong opinions about the NFL, saying: "It's like a circus. It's like all pro sports. Those guys are overpaid for doing very little."
Still, Douglas calls himself a fan of American football.
"My wife and I don't have a lot in common in a way," he says. "She listens to country. I don't. But she says to me, 'Let's go out on Sundays and watch football.' I said, 'Yeah. Great idea. Go out, have a couple of beers, watch the game.'
"We're Cardinals fans. We're regional. That's another thing I don't understand. I've got friends that grew up here in Arizona, but they're Green Bay fans. Back home, if you grew up in Liverpool, you're a Liverpool fan. If you grew up in London, you're for one of the London clubs. You don't support a team that's 500 miles away. My one friend, she chose Tampa Bay because she thought the coach (Jon Gruden) was good-looking."
Location: Somewhere along old Route 66
Miles to Houston: 1,280?
5:37 p.m.: Google tells us it's 22 degrees in Northern Arizona. We begin to disappear into horrible wind gusts and snowfall, hearing the following on a local NPR affiliate about our evening destination: "Flagstaff schools have cancelled classes for tomorrow because of road conditions."
Gonzo is dressed for May in Paris.
Location: Flaggstaff, Arizona
Miles to Houston: 1,227
7:22 p.m.: This mountain town at 7,000 feet is buried under walls of snow. Our Super 8 motel is lined with Hoth-level stalactites, and the ice-cold room is vaguely anchored by a mini-heater in the far corner. We dump our stuff and cross the frigid nighttime streets to the only local tavern in view: BUN HUGGERS.
7:30 p.m.: The girl tending bar insists the name is hamburger-related. We order a pitcher of beer, and Gonzo asks for wings. We play a game of darts. It's been years since I've played, and Gonzo thoroughly destroys me. In between the wreckage, I speak with a Cardinals fan at the bar who vows Arizona will return to playoff form: "This year was a goddamn fluke."
8 p.m.: I take revenge on Gonzo by nipping him on the shuffleboard table. We are terrible and both agree that it's one of the worst games of shuffleboard played by any pair of humans around. The Cardinals fan is watching us in awe from a nearby pool table and openly giggling. BUN HUGGERS is alive with tension and sport.
DAY 2: Wednesday, Jan. 25, 2017
Location: Flagstaff, Arizona
Miles to Houston: 1,227
11:53 a.m.: We exit Flagstaff for tonight's destination: Santa Fe. The road into New Mexico is flat and empty and sprawling for hundreds of quiet miles. Every so often, a tin-roofed cattle shack pops up in the distance. Near the Arizona border, we ride parallel to a snaking freight train that disappears over the hillside. Crossing into New Mexico, we see distant grain silos, pink-lit mesas sprinkled with snow and tiny Navajo outlets peddling fireworks. Out here, you forget that western cities by the sea are filled with frantic coffee shops, dive bars, crowded cube farms and schools packed with children learning about basic geometry and ancient Spain. Out here, Super Bowl LI is a deep-distant spectacle.
Location: Albuquerque, New Mexico
Miles to Houston: 1,018
3:10 p.m.: We steer through unlabeled worlds until Albuquerque finally appears on the lower horizon. Gonzo and I stop for lunch at a Denny's on the outskirts of town. Our super-busy waiter, Brian, promises to chat with us about football, but he's Howard Hughes-level elusive, bopping from table to table as the only waiter on shift.
Brian's coworker, Dominique, hits the scene to help manage the crowd. In between tables, she stops over to tell us she's a Cowboys fan with a suggestion for Roger Goodell: "They could have girl coaches at one point in time, or a girl player. I feel like it's time for girl coaches."
3:45 p.m.: We finally land an interview with Brian. He's a Chargers fan from San Diego who just relocated to Albuquerque in the past year. I ask how he felt about the team's move to Los Angeles.
"I mean, if you make these millions of dollars every year, then you shouldn't cry so much," Brian says of the team. "You should just go with the flow and respect your fans. Your loyal fans."
DAY 3: Thursday, Jan. 26, 2017
Location: Santa Fe, New Mexico
Miles to Houston: 950
9:04 a.m.: Morning horrors. I wake up in a Santa Fe hotel room with no idea where I am. Pitch black with the curtains drawn. We spent the previous evening with a friend of Gonzo's, John McCauley, an art director at Outside Magazine. He's a Patriots fan originally from Boston and confident about the team's chances against the Falcons. The three of us tell stories and sample Santa Fe's specialty: green chile. At some point in the night, I lose my glasses. From here on out, I'm basically Velma from Scooby Doo.
Location: Highway 285 (New Mexico)
Miles to Houston: 786
11:45 a.m.: We leave Santa Fe for the barren New Mexico wilderness. We are on a mission to find the famed alien crash site just outside Roswell. Everything feels possible now. As we barrel south, a woman on a dreamlike AM radio feed says slowly: "Imagine such a massive beam of energy that it would burn the retinas."
North of town, we pull off 285 onto Bitterroot Road, a dusty little trail that leads an hour west to where, in 1947, an alien craft reportedly spiraled to earth. Per accounts, the wreckage, along with multiple alien bodies, was whisked away by the military, never to be seen again.
We stare out into the desert. You see no birds out here. The skies are blank and white. We search, but we do not find the crash site -- exactly how the government wants it.
Location: International UFO Museum and Research Center (Roswell, New Mexico)
Miles to Houston: 758
12:45 p.m.: We beeline into town to Roswell's premier destination -- the celebrated UFO museum. It is a swarming, brilliant collection of all things alien. I speak with Jim Hill, the facility's executive director, who tells me: "The mission of the museum is to try to educate the public on the whole phenomena. And our mission actually states that we're not here to convince, but to educate -- and people can draw their own conclusions."
With the second-largest library on the subject of alien life -- the Vatican, of all places, holds the record, per Hill -- the museum drew a whopping 205,000 visitors in 2016. With the 70th anniversary of the crash coming this year, Hill is expecting even more visitors of the earthly variety. We walk the grounds scanning a rainbow of images and models depicting interstellar space travel, extraterrestrial shadow-beings and depictions of military-led E.T. autopsies.
On the subject of pro football, Hill calls himself a casual Cowboys fan, saying he "really wanted them to get back to" the Super Bowl but thinks "it might be best that those two rookies (Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott) didn't make it -- maybe that will kind of keep them settled in."
On the subject of aliens, Hill offers no official personal opinion, but he notes that our government still refuses to play ball with the concept of a crashed spacecraft, sticking instead to the claim that the carnage was nothing more than a downed weather balloon.
I'm comfortable believing that something else fell to earth in 1947.
DAY 4: Friday, Jan. 27, 2017
Location: Lubbock, Texas
Miles to Houston: 585
12:43 a.m.: I wake with a terrible pain in my chest. The hotel room is silent and dark. Heart racing. Our evening ended early after beers and a thunderous Tex-Mex dinner at Taqueria Jalisco just south of Texas Tech. I recall our meal, with heaping bowls of chips and warm salsa and a quesadilla the size of a placemat. When you order waters at Jalisco's, the kind waitress brings you the largest tumblers of liquid you've ever seen. I pay the bill in a full-on food coma.
Our cab driver home was a Cowboys fan railing away at Dallas for falling out of the playoff picture. Dak Prescott this, Tony Romo that. Good luck finding anyone willing to talk about the plusses and minuses of Andy Levitre. The people here are Cowboys-obsessed.
2 a.m.: I dial my mind back to an earlier moment when the hotel room was still sunlit and I was speaking with my two little boys over FaceTime, with both telling me they want to "go to the doggy shop and buy a doggy." I drift back to sleep.
10 a.m.:Later that morning, I talk with a young woman running the coffee shop in our hotel lobby. Maria Quirino has lived in Lubbock since birth but has no love for the Cowboys. She roots for Chicago -- just like her dad.
"He's a huge, huge Bears fan, so that's where it came from," Maria says. "I try not to get into too many arguments with [Cowboys fans]. For me, it's just the social aspect of it all. Being a Bears fan, it really just ties me closer to my dad. It's a bonding moment between us."
Maria says her boyfriend, a lifelong Falcons supporter, is "stunned" by this season: "It's a shocker for him that his team is doing so well. He's excited, his whole family is excited."
11:44 a.m.: Before bolting Lubbock, we meet a loyal listener of the Around The NFL Podcast, Jacob Nicholson, who -- like Maria -- went rogue on the Cowboys. Now 21, Jacob became a Vikings fan after latching onto Daunte Culpepper and Randy Moss in Madden 2000. Well-versed in the draft and all things NFL, Jacob hopes to be a general manager someday. We wish him well and head off into the distance once more.
Location: east of Abilene, Texas
Miles to Houston: 508
2:43 p.m.: With each passing mile, I become more thankful about Gonzo's decision to drive with me to Super Bowl LI. The game itself feels like a foreign blip on the radar as we slide across Texas. This voyage would have been far too solitary and menacing alone. Too much quiet. Too many questions. Instead, we both see it all: crumbling shacks by the highway, pickup trucks filled with workmen, the waitress who brought us life-giving cups of water, the taxi men and hotel workers obsessed with the Dallas football team and the sad, pale afterglow from the cities we leave behind. I speak some of this out loud.
"I'm starting to worry about you," Gonzo says. I think he's joking.
DAY 5: Saturday, Jan. 28, 2017
Location: Dallas, Texas
Miles to Houston: 239
10:43 a.m.: We make our way into Dallas from Fort Worth, where the night before, we got into a live-wire debate with a pair of Cowboys fans, Zach and John, playing darts on the board beside us. John made it crystal clear that while he roots for the team, he does not root for the city of Dallas.
11:51 a.m.: We're on the sixth floor of the Texas School Book Depository in downtown Dallas. It was from this perch that Lee Harvey Oswald fired three shots to end the life of President John F. Kennedy on Nov. 22, 1963. That's what the Warren Commission told the American people, but some -- like Robert Groden -- have their doubts.
We discover Groden in a folding chair just beyond the Grassy Knoll. An author and expert on the JFK assassination, he remains convinced that Oswald didn't act alone.
"There was a conspiracy," Groden says. "The [Commission] said that all the shots came from behind and that Oswald fired them all. When the shots were fired, Oswald was actually on the second floor [of the Depository] talking to a woman named Geraldine Reid. Mrs. Reid was making change for Oswald for a dollar bill so he could use the Coca-Cola machine. She was counting out the change to him into his hand as the shots rang off."
I ask if he has any equally radioactive opinions on pro football. His friend sitting nearby answers for him: "We're too busy for sports. Working all the time! We don't even know who's in the Big Game."
From atop the Grassy Knoll, I fill in the blanks.
5:30 p.m.: Gonzo and I scan the Senior Bowl in the hotel lobby before cabbing to Lakewood Landing, a darkened, beautiful tavern east of downtown. All voyage, Gonzo has operated as a floating mayor. He seems to know people at every stop. Especially here in Dallas.
Gonzo's friends are a fascination. By night's end, I'm sitting with a fellow Browns fan named Adam as we attempt to rattle off every Cleveland quarterback since their return to the league, recalling such on-field titans as Spergon Wynn, Charlie Frye and a close-to-extinction Jake Delhomme. You know the road trip is over when Spergon Wynn is getting name-dropped.
DAY 6: Sunday, Jan. 29, 2017
Location: Houston, Texas
Miles to Houston: 0
12:04 p.m.: We spend all morning driving into direct sunlight. It's the hardest stretch of all -- and the last. The land between Dallas and Houston is pulled tight for hundreds of miles.
North of Houston, we hit the airport. Our trip is ending. Suddenly, our car is given back to Hertz, never to be seen again. And we float via shuttle bus to the American Airlines terminal where Gonzo and I say goodbye after six days of traveling to this very spot.
I take a quiet cab into Houston. As we spiral into downtown, the streets are lined with long, draping banners celebrating Super Bowl LI. Hotels and storefronts, too. My cabbie says he grew up watching the old Oilers play in the House of Pain but faithfully adopted the Texans when they hit town.
As we mine deeper into Super Bowl City, I ask him if it's a good week to drive a cab. He says with a grin: "Biggest week ever."
DAY 7: Monday, Jan. 30, 2017
Location: Downtown Houston
11:37 a.m.: I walk the warm Houston streets to where NFL fans are beginning to gather in clusters around Discovery Green park. I found Derrick Everett working the front gate of Super Bowl Live, which promises to be a zoo by nightfall.
"It's a cool experience," Everett says of having the Super Bowl come to Houston. As a longtime Cowboys supporter, though, he wishes Dallas were making the short drive south for the big game: "But that's just me being a fan."
Next I meet a father and son waiting in line for the festivities. The dad, Chris Doran, says he's lived in Houston for 37 years. A Texans fan, Doran calls this week the biggest event he's seen in town "by far," saying: "We're just here to take it all in."
We'll find out Sunday.
Our adventure is over. Houston will take it from here.