Saturday, July 19, 2008

5000 miles

In the last three weeks I've driven almost 5000 miles (that's 8000 kilometres for those favouring the metric system). I'm back in Alabama now, where I quickly seem to have fallen into a malaise. The trouble with traveling so much is that one is constantly seeing new things and while coming home to six dead cockroaches in my apartment constitutes something new it's not quite the same thing as traveling to a Native American ruin in New Mexico or almost falling into the Grand Canyon. The other problem with traveling so much is that it's tiring and when you finally stop you feel pooped. As Alissa said in Las Vegas, you need a vacation from your vacation.

Anyway, the trip was really gratifying and even though there was a lot of flat driving through the High Plains of Texas, etc, that might bore a truck driver, I actually really liked being on the open road and being able to see nothing but land and the horizon.

If anyone is planning on visiting the U.S. and is interested in seeing more than L.A., Las Vegas, or New York, I recommend getting a rental car in those places and making small trips into the country. For example, get a rental car in Las Vegas, drive to the Hoover Dam, Mojave Desert, Death Valley, the Grand Canyon, which are all places within 5 or so hours and, I think, you'll enjoy seeing more of the country than you would staying in a city (of course) or via a tour bus. And you aren't going to drive enough to kill one another (if you're traveling as a couple or a small family).

By the way, on Thursday night I stayed with Bard in Memphis and, yes, you can see a pyramid in the photo (to your left). It's the old arena, which has since been mothballed after the FedEx Forum was built (where the Grizzles play) next to Beale Street.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Don't stare while in Truckstops

If sadness were to have a physical manifestation it might be the Travelodge in Amarillo, TX. Surrounding I-40 are all the new motels: Comfort Inn, Holiday Inn, Hilton, etc, and then there's the Travelodge, which might once have been a place of granduer. Not anymore. Amarillo is a stock town that time has passed by with barely a wave. I'm not saying it's a bad place; rather it's like Memphis or Birmingham. What was once a place of industry has fallen on hard times. You get the gist.

So today was a long day of driving. I left the Knights Inn, where I was ripped off in multiple ways, in Flagstaff at about 8:30 PST and made my way East. The drive back through Arizona and New Mexico was as equally pleasing as the first drive through it. I think, maybe, I'd like to live in New Mexico. I'll let the thought fester for a while and see what bubbles out.

I drove through three time zones and now find myself back on CST.

This is the end of my motel stays, which have progressively gotten better and then deteriorated. The Travelodge is better than the Knights Inn, so maybe my luck is improving. Tomorrow's another long driving day to Conway, AR and then I'm going to visit C. Bard in Memphis on Thursday.

I'd like to offer some sort of insight into today, but it was a day spent mainly thinking about leaving Alabama soon. I'm really restless and would sorely like to do something else, but my work visa ties me to UA and by extension Tuscaloosa. It's a strange feeling knowing I want to leave. I said to a few people before I left that I'd take this 2-3 week trip and then I'd know the answer about whether I was going to stay. I've half answered that question, but I might not be able to leave. That's one answer. The other thing is getting the feeling to leave. It's easy to be in a comfort zone in Tuscaloosa but I've grown weary of it and UA. But for me knowing, having the desire, is strange. I don't know what I'll do with it. Maybe I'll suppress it or maybe I'll find something else?

Viva la Nuttings

I’ve had a rather jam-packed last few days in Las Vegas with the Nuttings (Shawn and Alissa). The temperature often reached 110 degrees, but I have to say, and this is part of the old debate (dry versus humidity), that the humidity of Southern heat is far worse than desert heat. You just have to drink a lot of water in the desert.

On Thursday, Alissa showed me around the Strip. We walked through the casinos and talked, often people watching. The highlight for me was seeing a woman at the MGM Grand with an oxygen tank on wheels and a 12-pack of Pepsi sitting at a coin slot. I guess, if breathing becomes such a problem in life you just don’t care how you look in public anymore. The low part of the day was locking my keys in my car on the 5th floor of the Stratosphere carpark.

On Friday, Shawn had work off and we each purchased the “Power Pass” for $75 and this basically lets you do a lot of stuff that would otherwise cost much more. It’s good for a day but you can buy multi-day passes. The highlight for me was Madame Tussaud's wax museum because I got to pose with a wax replica of Jenna Jameson. Shawn kissed her. I did not. I also saw tigers, lions, dolphins, Las Vegas from a replica of the Eiffel Tower, art buy Georgia O’Keefe, a midget, etc. Basically, Las Vegas is a town where you can do or eat anything imaginable at any time. I even got to eat at a Mariachi Mexican Restaurant, followed shortly afterwards buy a liter of beer at a Bavarian Beer Restaurant. I actually couldn't finish the beer because I was full of Mexican food.

I’m back in Flagstaff now in a different motel. My room has no windows and the worst wifi connection one can imagination. Today, it’s off to Amarillo, a mere 600 miles and 9 hours driving away.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Starbucks Grande Canyon

I made it to Las Vegas, NV. I have driven almost 2200 miles since leaving Tuscaloosa. Yesterday, I drove up US 89 and then turned through US 64 into the Grand Canyon National park. Most people go the other way around and it turned out that going my way was the best way because I avoided most of the traffic in the park. In addition to simply driving around the top of the canyon, there are various points to stop in the park where one can get out and view the canyon better. I stopped at Navajo Point first and then made my way to Lipan Point, the Tusayan Ruin, Moran Point, Grandview and Mather Point. The views in the middle of the park were best and I found annoying families to be more predominant from the western entrance of the park. Getting around Mather Point, for example, was a nightmare. All in all, though, it’s a pretty spectacular thing and it’s certainly worth visiting. I think, though, having more time and being able to hike or take a trail into the canyon would be worth it. If you ever plan on visiting this area I would recommend staying in Flagstaff and driving to the canyon. There are a lot of other places in the area that are good to check out. Entering the Canyon National Park costs $25 and is valid for 7 days. It also gets you into other parks too.

After spending about four hours in the Grand Canyon I set off for Las Vegas, via I-40 and US93. The desert in northwest Arizona was great and I even got blown around a little in a dust twister on the highway. I also stopped, briefly, at the Hoover Dam, where it was 110 degrees. I didn’t stay long due to crowds and the heat, which really was bad.

I arrived in Las Vegas, NV around 5:30pm. The city was blanketed in smog and I found myself thinking, after having spent the better part of three days in desert-like country, there really shouldn’t be a city here.

Alissa and I hung out till Shawn got home and then we went and ate some Ethiopian food, which was good but also I got the feeling the restaurant was a cover for an illegal immigration ring or something nefarious. After this Shawn drove us to the Strip and we spent some time walking around looking at and in casinos. People watching was also plentiful.

I think today Alissa and I are going to take in a “Cagd Animals in Casinos” tour, which involves creatures you’d expect to find in the American desert: lions, tigers, sharks, dolphins, etc.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Right Wing Radio

I've made it to Flagstaff, Arizona, former home to American writing icon Gerald Gabriel. I've already taken the Gabriel literary tour and purchased souvenirs: a copy of a half-completed story ("If I Were Part Cat") and a pencil thought to be chewed by Gabriel. The teeth marks are rather too close to the tip of the pencil for my liking, and seem to indicate frustration on Gabriel's behalf.

That aside, the trip from Santa Fe to Flagstaff was a good one. It's hard to fully appreciate the Southwestern vista from a photo, and thus driving across I-40 and seeing the desert landscape unfold on the horizon is something I will always cherish.

But first, I must describe Santa Fe. I left I-40 yesterday afternoon and drove up US 84, which is a slightly longer way to get to Santa Fe (rather than go to Albuquerque first and take I-25 north), but by taking US 84 I was able to come into Santa Fe through the mountains. This area is also littered with Native American sites and Spanish Mission sites.

Because Santa Fe has such a strong Native American and Spanish heritage, the city is vastly different to other American cities. For a start, the city is entirely built in adobe style. When I came down from the mountains it was hard actually seeing the city because the brown adobe style makes the city blend in so well with the physical landscape.

On Tuesday morning I drove into the historic area of Santa Fe, parked and then walked around. It's a small sized state capital and there is a lot of historic places to visit. The city is also cosmopolitan and the people I spoke to were very friendly (as opposed to the Oklahomans I talked to on Sunday). Santa Fe is full of cafes and Native American/Spanish/Mexican/American infused foods. It's also home to old Spanish Mission sites and Native American dwellings. If you're looking at killing some time on a cross country trip, I recommend Santa Fe.

The Arizona landscape is different from New Mexico. I can sense the oncoming desert and the Grand Canyon is about 70 miles north of Flagstaff. Like many historic cities, Flagstaff is divided into historic Flagstaff, which is rather cool, and urban sprawl, which is, I guess, where my hotel is. I'll get breakfast in the historic part of town tomorrow, then drive up US 89 to the Canyon and loop back via US 64 before heading to Las Vegas.

One of the things I've been doing on this cross-country trip is to try and listen to the radio rather than listen exclusively to my own music. As a result I've been listening to a lot of contemporary country music (which I hope to write about next week), Christian radio (I'm now starting to really question this whole "Heartland" thing) and Right Wing talkback radio (Liberals are evil: they hate god, want to ruin the country, don't care about their neighbourhoods, hate America, etc). I listen because I can. And the more I listen the more I worry about Obama's chances.

Monday, July 7, 2008


Today was the longest driving day I've had in quite some time. I drove about 600 miles thru Oklahoma, Texas and New Mexico. I'm in Santa Fe, the state capital, which is about 40 miles north of Albuquerque. I decided to take a more scenic route on US 84. I'll write more about that later. I also drove on a few of the remaining pieces of the famous Route 66, which is now crumbling or dismantled in favor of I-40. You can also drive 75 miles per hour here. I haven't done that since Nebraska a few years back.

I have developed a severe head cold and compounded with my recent nose surgery, I feel miserable and am going to enjoy the Santa Fe beer I purchased. It's called "Chicken Killer" and is 10% alcohol. You can't buy beer that powerful in Alabama. I'll write more about that tomorrow, I think.

In the meantime I'm going to sip away, watch some Mexican TV in Spanish, and try and get some sleep. I'm in the Mountain Time Zone now, the often forgotten time zone, so it's still early.

One thing I like about traveling and staying in hotels is getting to watch Mexican soap operas (or telenovelas) on Univision or Telemundo. There are lots of dramatic pauses and stares into the distance. I have no idea what's going on in the one I'm watching, except that someone died and there seems to be a gunfight brewing.

Sunday, July 6, 2008


After spending Sunday morning packing and dining at IHOP, I left Kathy and Conway for the open road. Staying in Conway was good and it was nice to catch up and hang out with Kathy again. She has to stay and teach in the Arkansas Governor's Program, so I'm on my own again.

As I write this I am in a Motel 6 just on the outer western edges of Oklahoma City. The city itself is nothing to write home about. It's like many so-called "Heartland" cities: generic office towers in the middle of the city, an empty arena, and nobody to be seen on the streets. The rest of the city is unplanned urban sprawl. The one highlight, for me at least, is the Oklahoma National Memorial & Museum. I had planned to take a tour in the museum but a traffic jam near Shawnee, OK prevented me from doing this, so instead I spent about 1/2 an hour walking around the memorial near sunset and took a few photographs.

For those who remember, in 1995 Timothy McVeigh planted a bomb in the Oklahoma Federal Building. The bomb destroyed most of the building and killed 168 people.

The memorial is built on the former federal building site. Two large arches frame a mirror pool which runs parallel to a lawn with brass chairs lined along it. The chairs are in nine rows, each row representing a floor of the original federal building. Each chair represents someone who died, and small chairs represent a child.

The monument is stark but it works. It reminds me, in terms of appropriateness, of the Vietnam Memorial in Washington D.C.; that is it sums up what it is memorializing well without being, say, too sentimental or dramatic, or undervaluing the event itself. In contrast, consider the WWII memorial in Washington D.C, which misses the mark and is in the wrong place, in my opinion.

Tomorrow, I hope to get to Amarillo in the Texas panhandle and stop for lunch and then try and push on to Albuquerque, NM for the night. Most of what I wish to see is west of Albuquerque and this part of Oklahoma and Texas is rather flat, but not in the interesting South Dakota way (where you can see the horizon for hundreds of miles and not a tree in sight).

By the way, I've now set foot in 33 states, or 66 percent of the states.

Saturday, July 5, 2008

Born on the Fourth of July

I've spent the last few days traveling around the states of Arkansas and Missouri. Despite it not being in the South, nor actually being a state during the Civil War (but perhaps being one of the reason's for the war) southern Missouri is the most southern place I have been to since my time in the U.S. and I've lived in the South almost seven years. I've never seen so many Confederate battle flags and Confederate-themed things.

On Wednesday we drove up through the Ozarks and although I missed the turn off for Natural Bridge we did stop at Mystic Caverns. We stopped for a late lunch in Harrison, AR. We ate at a restaurant called The Heat and let me recommend their cheese quesadilla or the club sandwich. Then we drove on to Branson, MO, which is Las Vegas without any vices. It's also only a place you'd, ideally, wish to visit if you were under the age of 10 or over 50. The plan was to, perhaps, go to Silver Dollar City on Thursday, which turned into a no-go due to rain the next day. Instead, we visited Antique Malls, which is its own kind of amusement ride.

Later in the day we drove to Eureka Springs, AR, which used to be a hippy town but it's become rather gentrified now.

The 4th was spent back here in Conway and Little Rock, home of the Bill Clinton library, where a fireworks show was held on the banks of the Arkansas River.

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Pizza Inn

One of the delights about traveling through America is the roadside culinary offerings. Of course, these fall into several categories, such as drive through food options like Taco Bell, McDonald's, KFC (which is, strangely, turning back into Kentucky Fried Chicken), etc. These eateries are advertised along the interstate by helpful signs that dot exits on the interstate (as are signs advertising accommodation). There are also the fast food restaurants that are sit down in nature, like Shoney's, Waffle House, Denny's, Big Boy, etc.

Nowadays, when I drive, I tend to avoid stopping at any of these places. They are a trucker's delight but no friend to the solo traveler. I ate at Shoney's once with my friend Rachel. We were coming back from a conference in Atlanta and she insisted that we eat at the Shoney's in Anniston, Alabama. The experience was memorable for the large amounts of buffet bacon and hash browns but my stomach wasn't too pleased afterwards.

Last night, after turning down the option of visiting a Chinese Restaurant in Conway, AR (I couldn't see any vegetarian options beyond Vegetable Fried Rice) my friend, Kathy, and I went to Pizza Inn, which as it turns out is one step lower than CiCi's Pizza on the pizza food chain. There was a stressed out family making much noise while we ate and the teenage son wore a florescent green shirt with "Liquidation Staff" printed on the back, although the family didn't seem to be connected to a Liquidation business.

The drive from Tuscaloosa to Conway was 404 miles. Gas is twenty cents cheaper in Mississippi than it is in Alabama. Today, we're headed north up to Mystic Caverns, Eureka Springs and, perhaps, Branson, MO. We might go to St Louis but the Six Flags has Evil Knievel's son jumping 25 Dodge Rams on July 3, which means getting to the park might be difficult. Also, since the Mississippi River is in flood the fireworks on the 4th have been moved to a park in the city, so that might be a no go. Instead, we might go to Magic Springs in AR and/or diamond mining.