Another Loop of America

“Travel changes you. As you move through this life and this world, you change things slightly, you leave marks behind, however small. And in return, life — and travel — leaves marks on you.” — Anthony Bourdain

I have always loved to roam. Might be in my genes, as I had a grandmother who, in her 60s, took it upon herself to roam the world on her own.

The last “Loop Around America” I did was 15 years ago. Then, I could on the spur of the moment, decide that I wanted to see New Orleans post-Katrina and drive 800 miles from Oak Ridge, TN. I covered 7,500 miles in 14 days, and that included stopping in MN to see my niece get married, and visiting my cousin in Virginia.

Perhaps my best roaming was when in my 30s, when I was fired from a job and decided that December that the odds of finding another that time (December was always a low hiring month for computer programmers) were slim. So I decided to go to the South Pacific. I figured that the opportunity to go with no expiration date (other than when the money ran out) was not going to come again for decades, and, as the Romans said, carpe diem. As it happened, the Australian airline QANTAS was offering a great ticket – for $1200 I could make up to 20 stops in the South Pacific – just could not backtrack.

I paid with my severance check for 2 weeks at Club Med on the island of Moorea in Tahiti, and a tour of the South Island in New Zealand, but the rest of the time was mine to roam as I wished.

And wander I did, going for another 2 months in Australia and a bit in Fiji and Hawaii. My one regret in Australia was not going to Perth – particularly after reading Lex. I thought about it at the time but decided to go to Cairns – pronounced by the Australians as “Cans” or as near as I can tell – forget trying to pronounce the name of one of their birds – Kookaburra. It did provide a source for much laughter by the natives. Or the Prahran district of Melbourne, a city of a lot of beautiful Victorian architecture. I could not pronounce “Prahran” the way the natives did.

But if you haven’t been to the land of Oz, the distances and sizes take some acclimation. While the country is close to the size of the continental U.S., it has only 6 provinces (states). (Edit 05-30-21and 2 territories – revised map inserted).

And 3 of those provinces comprise a good 75% or so of the country.

I forget how many “Texases” would fill Queensland. I heard it years ago and I’m too lazy to do any computations at the moment. OK, in square miles:  Queensland – 715,300 and Texas 268,820.

2.6 times bigger.

But Queensland alone has weather ranging from San Diego-like (Brisbane) to more tropical than Hawaii (Cairns, up north).

And Perth (and nearby Fremantle) is about all that is in Western Australia. I had spent some time working my way up the Queensland Coast. Which, being in the southern hemisphere, gets more tropical the further north you go.

At the time, I couldn’t see traversing half the country just to get to one city.

But, having read Hizzoner, came to regret not making that push. I probably could have had a QANTAS flight. Although I took a bus – 24 hours – riding from Townsville, Queensland on the coast to Alice Springs in the interior. There were no QANTAS flights to “The Springs”.

I did manage during this time to send my now ex-boss a postcard at every stop.

Anyway, starting to go off on a tangent here. Before I even start.

For a variety of reasons, I haven’t been able to travel like I used to. Responsibilities at home, and all that.

But on May 1, the stars finally aligned and like a dog cooped up in the house too long, when that front door opened, I bolted out like a shot. While I never during this past year failed to respect the possibility of catching COVID-19, I decided I wasn’t going to let it run my life. I got my shots and took to the road. If I would catch it on the road I would deal with it if it came.

 I dubbed this trip informally the “coronavirus challenge”.

I wanted to take my 25 year old Mercedes-Benz SL500. With (then) 211,000 miles. I had it checked over in the previous few months and had some front suspension components, such as the tire rods, replaced. I know of the simple components, such as the fuel pump, alternator, and water pump that, if they fail on the road, can ruin the trip. Between the stress of trying to get it towed (and how far?), they are easily fixed at home. Ernie, my shop friend, pronounced the water pump fine (and original!!), and I had taken care of the previous mentioned items within the last few years. And just in case, I put an extra crankshaft positioning sensor in the glove box. This easily replaced device tells the main computer where all the valves and pistons are and thus the fuel injection and ignition are dependent on this $20-$75 part. And if it fails the car stops dead in the water. Stop dead in a small town and with towing, motels, and the stress of finding a good shop the $50 part can easily become a $700 (or more) part. And waiting for the small obscure part to be ordered.  

Not to mention how the time and expense lost pretty much ruins the rest of the trip.

Anyway, the car was ready and I was ready.

As I was to discover, the COVID situation changed things subtly.

As it turned out, in my visions of what I wanted to see the right brain was working overtime while the left brain was asleep. And as I discovered, I can’t really knock out the daily miles like I used to. Or perhaps more accurately, don’t want to drive the distances that I used to.

Although a couple of days I had nearly 600-mile drives. I had wanted to drive up the Texas coast, see the Pensacola Naval Air Museum, drive up the Carolina coasts, see Kill Devil Hills, scene of the Wright Brothers first flight, then head to my old school and see if I could remember the walk from my dormitory to Cabell Hall. And visit Appomattox if it wasn’t too much trouble.

Oh, and since I’ve never been to New England, find some nice roads with the Maine coast. Then upper state New York and see the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, MI (on my bucket list for quite a while), and Glacier National Park in Montana.

Starting out, I had wanted to see the Arches National Park at Moab Utah. A couple of years ago ColoComment gave me a great travel itinerary – seeing Highways 24 and 12 from Green River, UT. It goes through the Capitol Reef National Park and some of the most spectacular scenery (geological formations) right by the roads.

I was right by Arches but time constraints kept me on a short leash. Drove Highway 50 (dubbed by Life Magazine back in the 60s as The Loneliest Road in America) via Fernley, NV

Hizzoner wondered if there are West Fernley and East Fernley road signs, what happened to Central Fernley?

The miles clicked by, and soon I was passing the optimistically named “West Fernley,” and getting off on the exit to the appropriately (if somewhat unimaginatively) named, “Farm District Road.” East Fernley flashed past like greased lightning, leaving me to wonder whether Central Fernley was ever going to get any billing whatsoever, and whether there were life-long rivalries attending to growing up on one or another side of a town with a population of very nearly 8500 people.

A sign made famous by Hizzoner

Once past Fallon, the lonely part of 50 started, following the old Pony Express trail. In my mind out in that vast landscape I could picture some small rider (they were all small), riding for his life being chased by angry Paiutes.

Starting the trek on the “Loneliest Road in America”

This road took me through the old historic silver mining towns of Austin, then some miles later the busier Eureka. A sign seen in front of Austin, sitting alone in the middle of the high desert made me smile: “Practicing Social Distancing since 1860!

If I could describe Austin I would call it a living ghost town. You see remnants of the mines – and their rusting equipment – everywhere.

If this area interests you at all, I recommend reading Mark Twain’s book Roughing It, where he describes his time in Virginia City and the surrounding area.

Some 700 miles later, I got to the entrance of the Arches, only to find it closed for more visitors that day. The sign said to come back at 1500-1700, to see if they might have room.

Social distancing.

This would later almost bite me again in St Louis.

I didn’t feel like waiting for hours in Moab (at the Arches National Park), only to discover close to dusk that there would still be no entry. Where hotels were a good 2x-3x as much as surrounding areas. The Arches would have to wait yet longer.

So, I headed south through New Mexico and into Texas. While I was on a different road, I was in the area that ColoComment suggested, and last time – 2016 – I had a stop at Monument Valley, where they made so many Westerns. If you go there, I strongly recommend taking the Navajo-guided tour on their flatbed trucks (this is Navajo land) rather than taking your car on the 20 miles of pothole-infested dirt roads.

My SL at the time was not happy. And you will get a tour by a knowledgeable guide.

By the time I got to Louisiana I realized that time was running out. Pensacola, The Eastern Seaboard and New England would have to wait.

I did fulfil one thing there I did want to see, driving the Old River Road between Baton Rouge and New Orleans along the Mississippi River and seeing some of those old sugar Plantations. They reminded me of the driving along Virginia’s James River and seeing their plantations.

I headed north (I-55) and thought I still might get to see the Ford Museum then drive to Michigan’s upper peninsula. I realized that that would take more days. Even apologized to my cousin, 200 miles east in Huntington WV, my “home away from home” for much of my early life, saying I couldn’t get there. Along I-55 in KY I spied a billboard advertising the Corvette Museum in Bowling Green! I am easily turned while on the road, or, as one Lexican suggested, “follow your nose!”.

For me the joy of travel is as much meeting the people as seeing the sights. Got to meet Lexicans MarineMom and unkawill, wish I could have seen more.

Bill’s Travel Tip on how to meet people while traveling.

Something I have done most of my adult life is when seeing a couple or family taking a picture of one another, volunteer to take them all together. I have rarely been turned down, and they are without exception appreciative. Because otherwise, there is always one missing from the photo. Although at Houmas, the Louisiana sugar plantation, I did help a father trying with mixed success using his camera timer.

I have met people from all over the world and even if there is a language barrier, the act of kindness transcends that barrier.

When I got to St Louis, instead of pressing on to Michigan I knew I had better start heading west. But I had always wanted to see the Gateway Arch. I remember reading the news as it was being built in the 60s. It is run by the National Park Service, and I thought they were going to bite me again with COVID cut-offs. Because of COVID, they closed of one side of elevators and were only running at half capacity.

The woman selling the tickets for the ride up said there was no more room that day. I asked if she could double check. She asked “are you alone?”

When I answered in the affirmative, she said there was one space available with a large group. You ride up not in an “elevator” up that 630’ high curvature, but one of 6 or 8 6 seat egg-shaped “pods”. You are asked if you are claustrophobic. Don’t really care for tight crowds or tight places but you do what you gotta do, don’t you?

Well, as it turned out I was joined with a group of high-schoolers from (I think) rural Indiana taking a field trip. A woman was taking a picture of some of her students and I volunteered to take them all together. Got to meet the teacher, Heather, and her students. The NPS was later taking a “formal” picture with a backdrop and they wanted me to join them but I could see in 20 years’ time, some child asking his now adult mother or father “who is the old guy there”? with a shrug of the shoulders. So I politely begged off on that.

But we had a great time.

Heather (right foreground) and her group of students

I visited the San Jacinto battle monument outside Houston (always wondered where that battle was!). It is an obelisk taller than the Washington Monument. At the observation deck overlooking the whole area, I saw a young mother starting to photograph her small daughter by the window, and complimented her on their identical pink dresses.

Mother was grateful, and the little girl then put her arms around Mom with a big smile. What would have been a snapshot became a photograph.

Helped some Indian tourists at a rural small truckstop in Mississippi with similar appreciation.

Because otherwise there is always one guy missing!

A Highway Mystery

You’ll be lured off the highway by a sign noting an historical and/or significant event just off the exit. Only to discover upon exiting that the site is 100 miles that-a-way.

Got off for Shilow battlefield in TN, only to learn it was 60 miles down the road. Or learning the monument at the crash site in Mississippi of Leonard Skynard’s band was 16 miles up the road. Decided to miss those 2, but did drive to Abraham Lincoln’s birthplace in KY. Which was a mystery solved – among the scanned old slides residing on my desktop was a faded monument. I had no idea what or where it was and apparently my late uncle, on one of his many trips though the area, took me there. The site was dedicated by President Theodore Roosevelt.

I also turned off to see the landmark school in Topeka, KS that was the basis for Brown vs Board of Education. Today that case is, along with Marbury vs Madison, a core case taught to beginning law school students.

But why don’t they tell people in parenthesis on the interstate sign how far the historical site is?

Among my many memorable sights was this – out of the blue.

MarineMom suggested that I stop at a “roadside stop” that is native to Texas – Buc-ees. I passed one on the Interstate and thought I had misunderstood – it looked as big as a Costco box store.

She took me to one and explained the history – that the founder back in the 80s just wanted to take his young daughter to a clean restroom on the road, and couldn’t find one. What resulted became a Texas phenomenon.

I had never seen a pump island this big. 20 pumps? I remember one on I5 between Stockton and Los Angeles that was 50 pumps or so. But this? I don’t even know the count – 150? 200? And at each one I visited at least half at the moment were being used. The thought just occurred to me that the designers of this didn’t want people to have to wait in line to fill their cars.

I asked various cashiers how many gallons they pump in a month and nobody knew. I know in the 70s a big station was 80,000-100,000 gallons a month. A company run Chevron station by my house pumps “a million on a slow month”. With 15 pumps or so. The gallonage has gone way up because the oil companies starting in the 70s eliminated a lot of their stations. They didn’t need one on every corner.

But as your typical Buc-ees? 50,000,000 gallons/month would not surprise me. The average is probably more.

Buc-ees is Texas-big.

Never did get the count of the number of pumps. But it is Texas-sized.
Even the restrooms are spotless.
Buc-ee in appropriate COVID-19 attire.

Memorable conversations I had along the way…

Even years later, I have remembered the people I have met along the way during my ventures. Here are a few from my 6,500 mile sojourn.

A rule I learned on the road for meals if you see a lot or cars in the lot, that is probably a good place. I found an old converted house in Colorado Springs, Sandy’s, for breakfast, and I wasn’t disappointed.

I was so impressed with the service – the organization – and the meal I even gave it a Google 5 star review.

In homage to Lex, I will be Your Humble Correspondent (YHC)

YHC to server: “Give my compliments to Sandy the owner.

Server: Her name isn’t Sandy – it’s Connie.”

YHC: How did the restaurant get the name of Sandy’s?

Server: She bought it 20 years ago from the owner.

YHC: And her name was Sandy?

Server: No, his name was Al.

YHC: Well then, how did the restaurant get the name of Sandy’s?

Server: I think it was his girlfriend.

Anyway, a must-stop in “The Springs” for breakfast.

Just outside Colorado Springs is the road leading up to Pike’s Peak. Here is the old SL, a.k.a. “Gabriella”, at the 13,000 foot level.

On one of my 600 mile days, it wasn’t intentional. I had spent most of the day driving up to Pikes Peak, and because of the time, thought I should press on regardless to at least Grand Junction, CO.

I get there early in the evening and there wasn’t a hotel room to be had – at any price. Apparently, it was the high school graduation.

I press on. What else you gunna do? I wasn’t ready to “sleep” in the car by the roadside. I get back to Green River Utah (ironically where I started on my ill-fated day to the Arches) and call the motel where I was 2 weeks earlier. Spoke with the manager.

YHC: Do you have a room for tonight?

Manager: (after a dramatic pause while searching on his computer).

“I’m sorry, we are all filled up. Can I help you with another date?”

YHC: In a mood for a sarcastic answer but I am mellowing.

There were no rooms available in Green River either, apparently all vacationers this time, having taken heed of ColoComment’s advice.

Another 100+ miles to Salina and finally at 0200, a room was found. That was one of those 600-mile days.

Strange Conversation

I walk into a MacDonalds at Spanish Fork, UT and almost immediately an attractive 20-something woman by the door accosts asks me if I am married. At 7 decades now I know that no 20 year old woman would be interested in me except for ulterior reasons – if a 70 year old man thinks differently, he hasn’t been paying attention.

I refrain from what I would think is a witty answer (experience has taught me that both parties have to consider the answer witty, not always the case) and learn that she had simply found a woman’s wallet and was trying to find the owner.

The young waitress at a quiet, small truckstop in rural Missouri. She had been interested in my road trip and said that she hates going on long drives. Apparently her father would have an annual pilgrimage to Wisconsin and allow only 3 stops for fuel – no matter what the bladder was saying.

She hated it.

Waitress: I don’t want to do that anymore.

YHC: You know, you are 22 now and don’t have to do what your father wants.

Don’t know whether I helped or not.

Back in Louisiana at the Houmas House, there was what I believe a lovely wedding reception with a couple hundred well-dressed people on the lawn under the trees.

I was talking to a man in a blue sport coat, already perspiring on his head in the 80 degree heat.

YHC: Can you imagine what this place is like in August?

Man: We know!

Houmas House along the Mississippi, Louisiana

The Indian couple who owned the massive 50’s era motel in Salina, KS (right next to Big Booty Trudy’s Speakeasy and Cigar Bar! I pull up to the office and he has a 1947 Frazier on display! I had never even heard of this car. Car nuts can talk for hours, and he told me that he also had a 1966 Mustang Convertible.

“A classic”, I said.

“Yes, but I’d have to sell it in California to get any real money”.

I stayed in 2 “Salinases” on this trip, in Kansas and Utah. MarineMom looked up the name and there must be a dozen “Salinas” around the country.

Another memorable encounter…

Was the petite young blond tending the register at a service station in New Mexico. Halfway through the pleasantries, I noticed a holstered Glock on her side.  

Cashier: “I have a lot of relatives in law enforcement, and if someone’s trying to rob me I won’t put up with it”.

I got the feeling that she knew how to use it too. Since a cashier at a 7-Eleven around the corner from my house was recently murdered, I told her that it was perfectly understandable.

Notes on some of the places I passed….

Didn’t know that the Texas Cattlemen, on the drives up to Kansas to the market, would let their herds graze on the Kansas grasslands for some time first.

“Texas shipped up the horns”, Kansas cowmen used to say, “and we put the bodies under them”. They meant that bony steers from Texas grew fat in the bluestem pastures of Kansas. Stockmen drove their herds here along the old cattle trails, arriving by late April. The animals would graze and gain weight during May and June, then get shipped off to the Kansas City stockyards in July and August.

This yearly cycle began in the 1870s and by the late 19th century, cattle were shipped by rail….

— sign at a Kansas rest stop

I became aware of the influence the US Army had from Texas up through Kansas with so many towns named Fort this or that.

Fort Riley, Kansas is still in the middle of nowhere since George Custer’s days.

The sudden rain storm – deluge actually – in Kansas reminded me of my Cessna Wichita days, where the saying was, “If you don’t like the weather in Kansas, wait 20 minutes!”

The Kansas wind. Which was constant. They would say that “the snow falls in Nebraska and lands on Oklahoma”.

I-70 from Central Colorado through Utah has to be one of the most scenic Interstates in the country. From Colorado the massive Rocky Mountains seem to come right next to the road, and in Utah the San Rafael Reef.

I thought the Colorado section was even more spectacular than my drive a few years ago from Calgary, Alberta to Banff on Highway 1 through the Canadian Rockies.

Most motel WiFi’s stink. My iPhone more often than not would grind to a near halt (being preferential to WiFi over using cellular data) once the WiFi kicked in. Sometimes I would turn off the WiFi on the iPhone just so I could surf the web.

Strangest unmarked police car I saw:

Was in Mississippi: a crew-cab black pickup with dualie rear wheels and (in Cheech and Chong’s description) dingle balls hanging from the mirror. Complete with flashing blue lights in the windshield, and a uniformed LEO giving someone a ticket.  Betcha you’d never think that was a police car. I’ll bet they give an allowance for officers to buy whatever they want.

The gentility of Southerners of all backgrounds and races in rural towns. And a lot of big ones, too. They always seem to have time to have a polite small conversation with you.

Wish I could have gotten to the Carolinas, Virginia, New England and Michigan.

And Gettysburg.

But there’s always next time.

A proper German dinner in Fredricksburg, TX. Home to fleet admiral Chester Nimitz, it is in the center of the “Hill Country” and the massive German migration all before Texas became a state.

The historic Tower at Wendover Airport, NV. Wendover is where all of the heavy bomber crew, including the Enola Gay’s, were taught.

05-29-21 – Notes on some places and conversations I initially didn’t mention…

While I know that our Sierra Nevada Mountains have the tallest peak in the continental US (Mt Whitney, at over 14,000′), Colorado has more tall mountains.

FWIW Alaska actually has the tallest mountain in the world, Mt. McKinley at over 20,000′. Yes, Everest is over 29,000′, but Everest starts at a 15,000′ base while McKinley starts at near sea level.

Anyway my Garman had me on some scenic secondary highways through Colorado, one of which took me through the town of Alma, which, at over 10,500′ is the highest elevation of any incorporated town in the US. Made me think of Quito, Ecuador, which is actually lower but I’ll bet both towns demand an increased count of the blood’s red cells (for retaining oxygen) to function normally.

At the Corvette Museum in Bowling Green, KY one can choose through a factory option to take delivery of their new Corvette there. I saw about a dozen Corvettes all lined up in the lobby with a few happy owners ready to drive them off. (I later learned back home through a new Corvette owner that it is a $1,000 option, even though the factory is across the street!).

Anyway I spotted a woman by one of the new cars who looked a bit apathetic. Talked to her and apparently her husband didn’t tell her he was buying a new Corvette.

“I’ll bet there will be a conversation this evening”, to which she agreed 😉

In driving the Interstates through Louisiana, after awhile something struck me. I was on a causeway, and 30 miles had already been covered. Thirty miles over a suspended bit of undoubtedly expensive highway.

Both I-10 and I-55 had sections of causeway that were 30-50 miles. What an engineering achievement, and I wondered why it was necessary.

A Lexican in the F/B group, native of New Orleans, solved the mystery.

“That’s because you’re driving over the Atchafalaya River/Swamp. It’s the largest in the nation. Until the government built I-10 you had to take US 90 way down to Houma to get to Houston. Hell of an undertaking, must have been a lot of deaths.”

Must have been a lot of deaths. Can you imagine the snakes?

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One response to “Another Loop of America

  1. Pingback: Two Recent Road Trips | The Lexicans

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