I’m writing this in 2014 as I start this Travel Blog. The trip took place April 11-23, 2011. Sorry if I wax nostalgic:
Day 1, so we’re doing this: So we’re driving across the country, our first trip together after two and half years dating. Both of us come from road trip families (hers more than mine). My family took trips to Orlando, St. Louis, Toronto/New York City and Yellowstone growing up. With most of their relatives on the West Coast Beth’s family made twice-yearly trips to San Francisco by way of several different routes including Yellowstone and Death Valley. Beth’s father Ken made personal log books of all their trips with mileage tracking, time in transit and historical markers seen. My version is this blog!
Beth and I left the Twin Cities (that’s in Minnesota if you’re unaware) early in the morning at about “two hours past our original departure time” o’clock. We headed for the border with fresh eyes and the need to get the hell out of dodge. Vacations are too few and too far between in America. I know, our ancestors worked hard to get our society to where it is today but Americans receive about 20% of the paid vacation time the Europeans do and that just sucks. That being said Beth and I headed for the first waypoint, Cedar Rapids, IA with the guidance of our trusty GPS (eventually we turned to the GPS on our cell phones because we liked the voice better and it provides traffic data). Something about starting a long trip just makes me hungry. I think we made it about three hours before we had to stop for food even though we had a big breakfast. For the same reason a big trip makes me hungry it also seems to make the food I’m eating all that much better. That first five hours in the car went a lot faster than I thought it would and we entered the traffic camera-heavy Cedar Rapids. They have signs everywhere warning of speeding tickets mailed to the address on file for your license plate so we rode the brake and stopped for gas. To pass the time in the car we trolled the radio for suitable stations and counted the tractors we saw on either side of the car. Extra points were awarded if a tractor was actually doing “tractery things” at the time we drove past. We also played a favorite car game of ours, the Alphabet game. Each player calls out words they see on road signs, buildings and other vehicles in alphabetical order. Often the person that sees a word starting with ‘Q’ or ‘X’ gains a significant time advantage. Another six hours of driving brought us to our first destination, St. Louis, MO. Arriving during rush hour wasn’t the most fun we had all day. We planned to crash with a former coworker living in the area and promptly waited for her to get off work while trying to find parking. Say what you will about the population of St. Louis but they do know how to maximize their parking. We must have searched every street within two miles of her place for an open spot, witnessing several cars cleverly positioned in just barely legal spots. Our friend Katie helped us find a spot when she got off work and we had dinner at Fitz’s, a St. Louis staple and root beer brewery. We picked up a case of root beer after dinner and got a driving tour of St. Louis. We did circles around downtown and drove through the fancy neighborhoods with multi-million dollar homes just a mile or so from the bustling city. The Gateway Arch stands tall on the Mississippi River. We’ve both been to the top before and with limited time we were just happy to take a quick picture and move on. We also saw the school where Katie was working and popped into the bar where she ran trivia one night a week. There was a bartender there from the Twin Cities. We talked snow as all Minnesotans eventually do. End of day one.
Day 2, early start: I got about five hours of sleep in an easy chair. In order to make our next destination we needed to leave St. Louis at the crack of dawn. Katie was still asleep while we were getting ready and I couldn’t figure out how to turn on her shower. I got the water running and even found a decent temperature but couldn’t get it to come out of the shower head. After a few minutes of wet toes I just decided to cup water in my hands and make the best of it. I can rough it when I need to, no stranger to camping, but when I sit in the car all day long and have access to running water I need to take advantage. Katie and her cat saw us off and we headed for Illinois. One thing I like to do while traveling is visit as many states/places as possible. Considering the proximity of St. Louis to Illinois we popped across the river just to say we did. We stopped at the sketchiest gas station I’ve ever been inside and quickly headed back to Missouri. The skyline view from the bridge was worth the little side-trip (see above).
Southern Missouri is a pretty place. Trying to make good time we made very few stops but the charming small towns on Interstate 55 would be a good place to visit at a later date. We did make a stop in New Madrid, MO, famous for a huge earthquake to hit the town in the 19th Century (I think). From New Madrid you can see a small bit of Kentucky across the river that is cut off from the rest of the state by a slowly-changing bend (fun fact). Back on the road and headed toward Arkansas, another beautiful state with excellent land formations and scenery, we stopped a few times here and there looking for souvenirs. Again, looking to add states to the tally we turned towards Memphis, TN, a twenty or so mile detour. We had arranged to have lunch with a couple we met at my sister-in-law’s wedding. We barely knew these people but they were nice enough to let us tour St. Jude, the research hospital in which they both worked. They also took us to their favorite barbeque spot in Memphis, Central BBQ (left). They have excellent dry-rub ribs and mac and cheese and we sat outside in the Southern sun. A longer meal than we had originally planned, Beth and I needed to make up time. Not half an hour back inside Arkansas we were behind a semi and it went over a deer carcus. Sadly, so did we. My sedan doesn’t take to running over large animals as easily as 18-wheelers so we pulled off the highway at the next exit to survey for damage (we got lucky and there was nothing broken, just messy). We stopped along the riverfront park district in Little Rock, AR. The temperature had risen substantially in the last two hours but a walk was perfect. We saw “La Petit Roche”, the little rock for which the city is named (left). In case you’re wondering there is a “Big Rock” too. Both were used as navigational markers along the river back in the 1700s. I wish we could have eaten at one of the many trendy restaurants in the park district but there was no time! We had granola bars, dried fruit and candy (too much candy of course) in the car. We happened upon Hope, AR, birthplace of President Bill Clinton and ate at a Wendy’s franchise that didn’t make any of my favorite Wendy’s sandwiches (oh well). Arkansas has many towns with funny names that Beth found amusing such as Texarkana and Arkadelphia. We turned from the Interstate in Texarkana toward Louisiana and crossed a brand new stretch of highway with barely any cars on it. It was a bit eery actually. There were eight fresh lanes of concrete with fresh cut grass on either side and brand new yellow lane paint and we saw less than 20 cars in as many miles. Once the new road ran out we found a series of backroads. There was a sudden clunking noise in the engine so we pulled over for a look. I’m not a mechanic but we didn’t see anything obvious and the noise only happened once. The plan was to hit Shreveport, LA, take a picture just because we could and hit Texas by dinner time but plans change. Time flew and our schedule fell behind. NW Louisiana isn’t all bayou but I still had the sense that we were in or very near a swamp. We saw several police cars while on a narrow back road and were too afraid to stop and gawk at whatever they were looking at. Shreveport was alright, nothing special in the five minutes we spent there. Turned back towards Texas, sunset hit and we were about three hours behind, maybe five. This day was always going to be long. The plan, the hard-to-believe plan was 15 hours excluding delays like lunch. Our destination was to be Houston, TX but we were in communication with Beth’s mom Carol since day one. Her father Chuck was living an hour NE of Houston in Livingston, TX and had had a health issue that week. She flew down to check on him and met us in Livingston. She paid for our hotel that night and saved us an hour or more of driving. We caught her up on our very long two days so far and she went back to Chuck’s place for the night. There is no more comfortable bed than the one earned. End of day two.
Days 3-5, Houston Area: The next morning we brought Beth’s grandfather breakfast and coffee and played Cribbage for a few hours. We then left for Houston, our original day two destination. Beth’s sister and brother-in law, Val and Dave, live near downtown in the fourth largest city in the United States. We had dinner and watched a movie (Kick-Ass for the record), caught up on each other’s lives. It was an excellent, relaxing evening. Our time in Houston was split in Livingston. We visited Chuck every day we were in the area bringing him coffee and playing cards. He is a delightful man. Val and Dave showed us around Houston, a remarkable city with no zoning laws, by car and by foot. Restaurants and businesses blend seamlessly into housing. Maple, their dog, led us around their young professional neighborhood in wide circles. They took us to a cool movie complex that was at least five stories tall. We saw “Paul”, an alien comedy with Simon Pegg, Nick Frost and Seth Rogen. Dessert was ice cream from Amy’s, a shop with two giant cows on the roof. They do mix-ins (a trend in ice cream places these days) so I had some combination of reese’s and cake batter ice cream, Beth had something raspberry. Val and Dave also took us to see a lecture given by Astro-Physicist Neil deGrasse Tyson (he is shown temporarily wearing a cowboy hat to please the local Texan audience). It was an impromptu idea but I’m glad Dave came up with it. The line to get in the free event was massive. He spoke about the Universe, asteroids that are projected to possibly murder us all, global warming, and a lot of other topics. I had seen videos of Tyson online and he was just as charismatic in person. Hopefully that asteroid misses us thirty years from now.
I cannot remember all that we did in Houston but the last day was especially jam-packed. While Val and Dave were at work we had several activities planned. First was NASA an hour outside the city. We didn’t have time to do the full guided-tour but it is on my bucket list for the future. We saw what we could time permitting and headed outside the tourist area to just inside the actual NASA facility where the Saturn V Rocket display is housed. You have to go through a gate with guards all around and tell them you just want to see the Saturn V and they let you inside the gate about twenty feet where you can access a parking lot with a large warhouse-sized steel building. The Saturn V is awe-inspiring. Nothing more to say than that. Then we headed for the Gulf of Mexico and Galveston, TX. Another hour in the car and we were ready for lunch at a beach-front burger joint called The Spot (recommended by Dave). They have made-to-order burgers and chicken sandwiches with limitless toppings, toasted buns and fried pickles as an appetizer. The food was great but the view was better. It was windy on their third story balcony (we had to use napkin dispensers to hold stuff down) but worth it. We walked out into the sand after lunch and basked in the sun (below). Mini-golf was on the docket, a Knutson vacation staple, but we ran out of time. We headed back to Houston and had one more dinner with Val and Dave and some of their college friends (also visiting Houston and just for the one evening). We ate at a Texas favorite called Chuys. They have hub caps all over the ceiling. Not quite the end of day five…
Night 5 and Day 6, no rest for the weary: The crazy original plan was to leave Houston at 9pm and make way for Phoenix, AZ, our next destination. I’m still not sure why we thought that would be a good idea but it worked out okay. We saw the Alamo by night (below). It isn’t very majestic now with bars and night clubs built up right around it but it was still a cool bit of history to see. A quick picture and we were back out into the night. We took turns sleeping in the passenger seat for two or three hours at a time. I played a game of car-leap-frog against my will with two separate idiots that couldn’t understand cruise control. Beth saw fifty or more deer along the road while I slept blissfully unaware. We saw no armadillos for which we were lucky considering their road-kill and car-damage potential. We stopped for gas at a credit card-only station at 2am and none of our cards worked. Running on fumes we had no choice but to knock. Luckily the owner lived on the premises and let us pay him cash to use his card at the pump. I should send that guy a thank you letter now that I think about it. I wonder how hard it would be to track him down considering we kept a log of everywhere we filled up. Our credit cards didn’t work because apparently our banks thought they had been stolen and taken on a cross-country spending spree. We had it straightened out the next day over the phone. The best part of that night was the sunrise over the West Texas desert. Beautiful red rock formations, the colors of the sun as it rose and the Neon Trees CD on repeat (quietly because Beth was sleeping). I hope to recreate that moment again many times in my life. Priceless.
We ate breakfast at an Ihop in El Paso, TX. After hours in the car and no sleep in a bed for 22 hours it was amazing to sit in a booth and stretch out our legs. I napped through most of New Mexico while Beth put up with miles of construction cones and backed up traffic. Arizona was more exciting and the replenished supplies (and churros) from a Costco in Tucson were a big help. We made it to Tempe by late afternoon and the tempurature had risen to over 100 degrees (in April!). Beth went to Arizona State so we had two separate dinner engagements with some of her friends still living in the area. We had sushi first (which I don’t like all that much so I abstained) and then ate at one of her favorite bars a block from her old apartment building called Bison Witches (get it? Bison Witches… Buy Sandwiches). This was the second time I had the pleasure of dining there as I’d visited Beth for Spring Break in 2009. We returned to the hotel for a well deserved night of sleep and even worked out our schedule for the following morning to squeeze in an extra hour of sleep! Did I say worked out? It didn’t, more on that later. End of day six.
Day 7, California: We made our way out of Arizona and into California. The weather continued to be extraordinary. Along Interstate 10 (which runs all the way from Jacksonville, FL to Los Angeles, CA by the way) we passed through a very windy valley filled with windmills (below) which I consider to be awesome. Yes, I like maps, windmills, skylines and I am very much a nerd. The wind was so intense it was noticeably forcing the car sideways at times. We made it through the Sierra Nevadas and into the LA area, then headed straight for the Hollywood Walk of Fame and the Sunset Strip. Parking was a bit confusing in the early afternoon because most of the pay-lots are un-monitored until the bar crowds show up in the evening. We couldn’t find any obvious places to park off the beaten path either so we entered a pay-lot and left a note on the dash that we would pay upon exit if an employee should happen to show up. We hit the Walk of Fame and I must have taken 300 photos of the sidewalk in about two hours (Drew Carey being one of my favorites). There is no free bathroom facility in the area as restaurants look to charge for the privilege but luckily there was an LA Fitness and we had our membership card along (the bathroom in their facility was much nicer than the one in our gym back in Minnesota). The strip was cluttered. Other tourists were everywhere and made picture-taking problematic at times. There were also costumed-characters walking around looking to charge for pictures and street-performers making tips. One guy, a rapper, put a CD in my hand and said if I liked the Beatles (I was wearing a Beatles shirt) I would love his work for $5. I highly doubt his work would have reminded me of the Beatles in any way but I wouldn’t know because I didn’t buy his CD. The Chinese Theater on Hollywood Boulevard was cool to see as well, considering so many awards shows and movies have been filmed right there. I was wearing sunscreen but evidently not enough. I was over-heated and definitely redder upon returning to the car. We still saw no way to pay for our two hours of parking so we took off and wandered the Hollywood Hills area for a while on the way back to the Interstate. The drive from LA to the Bay Area on Interstate 5 is quite diverse and beautiful, oh and cows, so many cows. The trip felt longer than it actually was after a while. Inland California is still gorgeous but on our next trip to California I would like to travel along the coast. We didn’t hit the Bay Area until after dark. The sunset over the mountains was tremendous. The itinerary had us arriving at Beth’s aunt and uncle’s house in Benicia, CA around 10pm but due to our wishful thinking “hour of extra sleep” we were an hour late. We hung out for an hour and then Beth and her aunt Debbie went to the airport to pick up her dad. Ken flew out to join us and his siblings for three days and continue on with us for the drive home. Sleep, well earned.
Days 8-10, Bay Area: Sleeping in the first day was a nice treat. Beth’s uncle Jack’s homemade breakfast was too. The man is a good cook and a genius with the grill. I swear there was some giant, perfectly cooked hunk of meat with every meal. The first day with Beth’s relatives we drove from her aunt’s house to Sacramento to see her cousin, his wife and their brand new baby. We played with their dog and took turns holding the little one. Lunch was Joe’s Crab Shack where I tried my first actual crab not in a pre-packaged state. Beth’s dad wore one of those funny plastic lobster bibs the whole meal. We did a few circles around the State Capitol for fun and went back to Benicia. I watched “The Rock” which I had brought along to watch in the car if I had any time. It is one of my favorite action movies of all time (even if some parts are a bit cheesy) and it was interesting to see all the sights of San Francisco that we would be touring the next day. Ken took us to visit his mother (we watched Jeopardy). For dinner I had the chicken nachos which were delicious and huge. I barely made a dent in the plate before I was completely full. Benicia was the capital of California (for 13 months) before Sacramento and the old Capitol building was right next to the restaurant (I looked up the 13 month thing, I didn’t just know that and I’m not sure why it was the Capitol for such a short amount of time).
The second day in the Bay Area we hit the actual Bay. Beth’s uncle Tom joined Debbie, Ken, Beth and I on a tour of San Francisco. We packed into Tom’s car and made the hour or so drive (in traffic) into town. Despite recent stories about transit strikes and even a derailment I would like to ride San Francisco’s BART train system sometime. Of those in the car I was the only Frisco newbie. The city skyline is tremendous. I’m addicted to taking pictures on trips and I took twenty pictures from the backseat. The first stop was Pier 33 and the boat to Alcatraz. We only had to wait in line twenty minutes to board the boat having bought tickets ahead of time. I was quite surprised how short the trip was. I checked in on Foursquare (if you don’t know Foursquare is a location-based social application) as “On a Boat” and before I knew it we were there. There is a really cool sign visible as the boat docks that warns people not to help prisoners escape. The tour is self-guided. You get headphones and a little player that you can pause if you ever want to look around in a particular area longer. The tour takes you through several different areas of the prison providing background and history of both Alcatraz the federal prison and Alcatraz the military fort. You get to see model cells (above), recreation areas, the dining hall, administrative areas and places on the grounds with trillion dollar views of downtown. It was a little cloudy but the views of the city from the island were fantastic (left). Hard to believe the warden of a federal prison had one of the best views of the city from his residence. After we all finished the self-guided tour at slightly different times we hit the gift shop and got separated. I lingered longer than I should and almost missed the 1:30 boat we had agreed to take back. The sun came out a bit more while we were on the boat and I went up to the bow and snapped a few skyline pictures.
For lunch we went to Pier 39, the touristy pier. I forget the name of the restaurant where we ate but they claimed to have the best clam chowder in the West. I haven’t tried them all (just the one actually) but it was truly fantastic. For dessert we walked the pier and watched the walruses down by the water. During the afternoon we made several stops including the beach, world famous Lombard Street (the twisty-winding street with a great view), Golden Gate National Park, and of course the Golden Gate Bridge itself. Tom pulled over and let me (made me, really) drive down Lombard Street. It was cool bucket list kind of activity. There were a lot of other tourists doing the same thing. I bet people that live on this street hate all the attention and traffic but the view is probably worth it (right). The Beach was nice. It gets pretty cold that close to the Coast but that didn’t stop Beth from sticking her feet in the water. She often wears flip flops on our trips even though we walk a lot. We drove through Golden Gate National Park which is very large even though it is situated very close to the twelfth largest city in the country by population. They have lots of streams, waterfalls, a buffalo (for some weird reason), a full windmill, world-class sculptures, concert venues and beautiful gardens. The bridge was yet another bucket list item. We drove under it on the East side and walked a bit, then drove back up top and parked by the visitor center. Out on the bridge itself was very windy and cold. I was quite glad Ken had warned me of the temperature drop from Benicia. It was 75 degrees at 8am in Benicia and it was something like 45 degrees on the bridge. The fog was pretty thick and I’m not a huge fan of heights so I held on to the railing whenever possible (left). We took lots of pictures and then drove across to the other side and parked at the vista point. The fog cleared ever so briefly. Jack made an excellent dinner (pork I think). It was a phenominal day.
We went back to see Ken’s mother for awhile and also met up with Ken’s other brother Nick at the Asian restaurant where he worked as a bartender. The three brothers have a running contest about whom is the funniest but I tend to find them all pretty hilarious. Debbie prepared for a family dinner that night by taking us to Costco. Ken, Beth and I went out and played mini golf (finally getting the staple into the vacation). I remember winning but that could be a completely manufactured memory. All of Beth’s California relatives came for dinner that night. It was fun officially meeting the relatives I hadn’t yet met and catching up with everyone. Debbie’s dogs made the rounds begging wherever they could. I over-ate and went to bed blissfully happy. End of day ten.
Day 11, do we have to go?: This vacation had to end sometime but I certainly didn’t want it too. Loading the car was a bit harder now that we had Ken’s stuff along. A fond “see you later” to Debbie and Jack, our amazing hosts, and we hit the road. Ken’s travel experience was helpful right off the get-go. We needed to get to Interstate 80 but he advised taking a detour through Lake Tahoe, NV. The roads through the mountains were narrower and slower but infinitely more beautiful (the map at right shows only the original route, not the scenic detour). We saw snow for the first time on our trip, not a happy sight really, and the Tahoe air was brisk. I could see myself planning a trip around Tahoe someday. The lake is to die for (left). We pushed on through the mountains and hit Carson City. We had lunch at the Gold Nugget casino and played the slots for twenty minutes although we didn’t win anything. Nevada is huge so I took a nap in the back seat. we rotated drivers every few hours, of course. I saw a train running parallel off the Interstate about a quarter mile. It had double-decker cartons and looked like a rainbow of color in the desert with a rock formation as background. It was like a postcard. The sun set as we hit Utah. We parked in Utah and went to another Gold Nugget casino back in Nevada (apparently they maximize their real estate by building the non-gambling portions of their facilities in Utah). It was late but the taco place was still open. The next few hours in the car made the taco place seem like a bad idea. Utah by pitch-black night was uneventful. Salt Lake City proper doesn’t have a lot of options for late night restrooms for your information. Like almost none, we looked everywhere. I’d like to be there during the day the next time we pass through so I can take pictures of the lake and mountains and easily find a bathroom. The mountains start as soon as you leave Salt Lake. What I could see of them in the darkness they looked massive, impressive, snow-covered and exquisite. The Interstate winds up, down, and between the peaks. Ken was driving this portion and Beth was asleep in the back. I was supposed to be asleep too but the beauty combined with my fear of plunging off of a cliff-side, icy road going 70mph (speeding runs in the family apparently) kept me awake. We eventually reached Wyoming. It had become so cold at that point that we had the heat cranked to the max, a drastic change from having the A/C at the max a few days prior. We got to the hotel in Rock Springs, WY around 2am. They had cancelled our reservation despite having plenty of rooms available and a fore-warning that we’d be late. They checked us in to our rooms and I don’t remember even taking off my shoes. End of day eleven.
Day 12, Interstate 80: Rock Springs, WY is cold. That is all I remember about it. We left the hotel and I had not prepared properly for 12 degree weather on our amazing SPRING road trip of the SOUTHWEST United States. The elevation and lack of weather research threw me for a loop, a mistake I won’t make again. The snow-topped foothills looked glacial. We diverted a bit further South to get to Colorado. I had done some research while planning the trip and scoped out the closest town to the border, Julesburg, CO, home of cool old train station. Check another state off the list! I’m sure Interstate 80 has a few bright spots but we didn’t see many that last day of the trip. We plodded through Nebraska as fast as possible. We had omelettes at Perkins for dinner and made way for Iowa. The realization that our trip was almost over was depressing and Nebraska/Iowa was no cure. We stopped at the Gerald Ford birthsite/memorial in Omaha, NE hours after it closed for the night and walked through the garden looking at the statues and displays visible outside.
The Iowa border in Omaha is the Missouri River and the picture of the “Iowa” sign we got was quite blurry in the dark. Our road turned North at Des Moines and a few short naps later we were back in Minnesota. Ken woke me up for the border and I drove the last bit home. We were a bit ahead of schedule having cut some breaks in half and squeezing a few extra mph out of the speed limit. It was around 2am when we dropped Ken off at home and twenty minutes later we made it back to the comfort and warmth of our own bed. I could not be more pleased with how the trip turned out. Countless hours of planning spread out over three months had all paid off. A few minor hitches and delays had crept up but nothing major ruined our trip. We even had a buffer day at home to do laundry and relax before going back to work. Magnificent. End of day twelve.
Summary: Our trip included 16 states; Minnesota, Iowa, Missouri, Illinois, Arkansas, Tennessee, Louisiana, Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, California, Nevada, Utah, Wyoming, Nebraska, and Colorado. We visited eight state capitals; Little Rock, Phoenix, Sacramento, Carson City, Salt Lake City, Cheyenne, Lincoln, and Des Moines. We also visited 21 of the 200 most populous cities in the United States (according to population figures at the time); Los Angeles (#2 by population), Houston (4), Phoenix (5), San Antonio (7), San Francisco (12), Memphis (19), El Paso (22), Tucson (32), Sacramento (38), Omaha (40), Oakland (44), Minneapolis (50), Saint Louis (52), Chandler (76), Gilbert (92), Reno (94), Des Moines (108), Shreveport (110), Little Rock (119), Salt Lake City (127), and Cedar Rapids (189). We drove over 5445 miles. I say “over” because that was the planned minimum and we didn’t keep track of actual mileage (I wish we had but we forgot). Finally, by staying with friends and relatives we were able to save a bunch of money and still have a tremendous time. I didn’t keep track of how much money we spent in total but gas was the largest expense. Food wasn’t too bad because we traded off between dollar menus and car snacks on the highway and bigger meals when out with family or trying the local cuisine (it didn’t hurt that Beth’s fantastic relatives kept picking up the check for nachos!).
Overall I wouldn’t have changed a thing. If you have any questions about the trip feel free to ask on this site or on twitter. My facebook friends can enjoy all 1173 photos from this trip that I thought were worthy of social media (there were a lot more, trust me). I hope you enjoyed the read and please check back for future posts. Donations of $0.03 per word you read are encouraged. Happy travels.