Cross-Country Travel, Chapter 3

June 25, 2002-July 21, 2002

I’ve started reading 400-page “Blue Highways” by William Least-Heat Moon. The book is about his trip across the country on “blue highways” (two-lane roads). I was surprised to find out that he was only on the road for 3 months (which makes me a little skeptical about the length of the book). Anyway, get ready, because I’m taking the challenge, and my monthly updates are going to be about 120 pages from now on. I added links to pictures in this email, since I haven’t managed to make a real website. I can’t take credit for the pictures of Chaco, and ballooning; they are borrowed.

After I flew back to Nashville, I picked up my car and headed west. I was expecting to get to New Mexico pretty fast, but ended up taking a little time getting through the states on the way. Although Graceland was closed, for some reason driving by Elvis’ planes piqued my interest, and I drove back the next morning to check it out. On the way, I stopped in and donated $10 to the Mississippi Association of Casinos. As it turned out, the planes were less interesting than the house, which is not particularly big (this is the back), but is decorated just as Elvis had it, complete with a yellow bar in a room with 4 TVs, and “The Jungle Room.” After Graceland, I stayed at Hot Springs Arkansas, and then headed through the Ouachita National Forest, where I did a short section of, according to one mountain bike magazine, the best mountain bike trail in America. It was a great trail, with parts only about 2 feet wide with steep drops to the valley below.

I stayed at a campground that night on a ridgeline drive with a view over the Mountains. The guy at the campsite next to mine stopped by to chat, and mentioned that he had not been camping for about 15 years, saying that it really wasn’t safe for a while to camp without carrying a gun (huh?). I have to say I am ignorant of what the “ark” in Arkansas means, but it makes for some great names like Texarkana, Arkadelphia (my favorite), and Arklahoma (for the region near the border). As I drove into Oklahoma, I experienced for the first time, random people driving the other way on a “two-lane” highway, waving to me, which continued through NM. I stopped at the Oklahoma City National Memorial. I also figured I better stop at the Route 66 Museum, which was about 98% sentimentality; there were some amusing parts too, such as the description of “The Hippie Culture“. That night the campground host set my mind at ease by saying, “Massachusetts, huh, yer in luck, we ain’t hung enny Yankees hyar fo’ a long time.”

I decided it was time to get out of The South, so it was on to Roswell, New Mexico – Alien country. Unfortunately, it was after 5 when I got there, so the “International UFO Museum and Research Center” was closed. But I did have an encounter with someone apparently from another planet at the campground that night. Just after I started trying to go to sleep the guy came over to my site trying to bum a smoke off of me. He acted incensed that I wouldn’t give him a cigarette (not figuring I might not smoke). Not surprisingly, at about 2 AM in his drunken state he yelled, “I’m going home” at his wife, and started driving his RV around the campground trying to get out, which led me to wonder if the locked gates at the campground entrance are to keep the riff-raff out, or drunk people in.

The next day I went on a “wild cave tour” at Carlsbad Caverns, and watched the bats fly at sunset. I met a fellow nomad, although a gainfully employed one, on the tour with whom I did some sight-seeing over the 4th of July weekend. After Carlsbad, I climbed the highest peak in Texas, Guadalupe Peak (8749 ft.); luckily I stayed in a hotel in El Paso that night, because a severe thunderstorm with a tornado went very near the campground I was considering. After El Paso, back into NM, to White Sands. It’s a small National Monument, but well worth the visit, especially the 4 mile Alkali Flats trail through the dunes. It was also cool to see a sand storm, which looked like a snow storm (the sand being white and all). The 4th of July fireworks in Las Cruces were absolutely crazy, with kids and adults setting off fireworks everywhere (the street, the sidewalk, sloping driveways), with little supervision. The only thing that was missing from the festivities was beer, but after some thought (and annoyance) I decided that it was probably for the best. Next was Gila Cliff Dwellings, a ridiculously long ride. Then on to the Albuquerque area.

Chaco National Historic park, outside Albuquerque was a really interesting place, at the end of a 15 mile 100% washboard dirt road. The ancient buildings are built in a canyon, as opposed to the more common cliff dwellings. Aside from the possible Solar/Lunar alignment of the buildings (that’s what the visitors center video pushes), the attention to detail in the stonework, and scale of the ruins was impressive. On Sunday morning at 6 AM, the hot air balloon van stopped at the hotel to pick us up. It was an 80’s Ford Econoline with a basket on the back, which at first I thought was just a prop – not so. The balloon ride was really cool, a little less than an hour, but it included dropping the bottom of the basket into the river, a beautiful view of the Albuquerque area and other balloons, and an invite to breakfast from a woman with a young child watching us fly over her house.

From Albuquerque, I went to the Taos area, where I did a great 11 mile cross country mountain bike ride at a ski area from 9000 to 10500 ft in elevation. After the desert, it was a relief to get to the mountains. I experienced a perfect New England summer day in the mountains of NM, clear blue sky with a few puffy clouds, about 70 degrees and dry, a nice breeze, trees, grass, and streams. At this point, I was booking it to get to San Francisco in the next few days. I drove up to Shiprock just outside of the town Shiprock, NM. I also stopped at Four Corners. Apparently there is something appealing about getting a picture taken while in four states at one time to 10 year old kids – and me. I camped that night at an incredible campground in Utah, 30 ft from the edge of a canyon. In Utah, my map software told me there was a shortcut on a dirt road through a mountain range, but I was starting to wonder when I had the eerie feeling of having lots of eyes on me. I noticed every single cow lifted its head and watched me drive by. You know it’s desolate when the cows don’t even recognize a car. I stopped at Great Basin National Park, just over the border in Nevada, hoping to climb ~13000 ft Wheeler Peak, but didn’t get there in time. I did see my first Glacier at the park, and made my first snowball. I also went on yet another cave tour. The ranger giving the tour was really good, especially for kids; of course there was the one guy who didn’t quite understand that the questions the ranger asked were to make kids feel smart – not him. Then I followed route 50, “The Loneliest Road” across Nevada, and went through Lake Tahoe to San Francisco!! Woo hoo, the Pacific Ocean.

In San Francisco, I hung out with my sister, and a little later my parents showed up. We went to wine country, Santa Cruz, and a bunch of other places in the bay area, as well as my favorite “garlic restaurant,” The Stinking Rose.

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