OK, first things first: This year's Big Trip is projected as lasting six full weeks. Yes, six. Hope you can hang with us for the duration - and we're hoping we survive as well. Ah, the wonders of 21st century communication, uncovered employee leave balances, lots of long office hours put in prior to departure, and old-fashioned hardworking loyal fellow professionals... :)
One way to reduce stress about departure deadlines is to simply not set a deadline, and just leave when we're ready to go. This seemed to be a brilliant idea as we began our weekend and started piling all the essential items together for six weeks on the road, including four business meetings (with presentations) and visits with all of Suzanne's immediate family. The only problem was that we'd also promised to leave a somewhat tidy dwelling for our housesitter's benefit, which means that many months of delayed cleaning had to also be accomplished amid the packing, sorting, and loading. Through Friday and Saturday the piles of junk around the house began to diminish, and the piles of stuff neatly(?) stacked in the back of the truck began to grow. By Sunday, most everything was ready, and a flurry of maniacal cleaning brought the house to a semblance of habitability. Who says deadlines aren't motivating?
And so, at 17:45 MST on Sunday evening, all was ready and in place either at home or in a fully cram-packed vehicle, the engine roared to life on our trusty truck, and four nearly new tires (plus a spare buried somewhere in the back) rolled off the driveway and onto the asphalt of adventure.
The first miles on these trips are fortunately typically rather uneventful, and all the repairs and preparation done on truck & its occupants seemed to be paying off with a smooth ride down I-17 and onto a busy stretch of eastbound (well, really southeastbound) I-10. A stop for dinner at Burger King in the fast-growing city of Casa Grande, and then a brilliant sunset in the rear-view as we rolled through the somewhat still rural landscape separating the largest city in the state from the second-largest.
We never thought we'd be happy to see $3.69 gas, but in this case the Shamrock station in Tucson was indeed a welcome sight. We're going to try to be rather economical on this trip by driving at a relaxed pace and keeping the V-8 destressed, and we're hoping to be at or near 15 MPG for much of the trip - which will be an essential financial survival tactic for this multi-thousand-mile journey in these trying times of above-four-buck fuel. And yes, since you asked, we thoroughly evaluated taking either "Putt-Putt" the Geo or "Moo-Moo" the Taurus instead, but neither of these otherwise fine vehicles has the overall capacity and flexibility of our old friend the Mighty Truckasaurus. And so we'll do the best we can with the truck and fuel tank we've got.
Where were we again? Oh yeah - Tucson, and a long day (well, three long days) is getting rather late. After traversing the big I-10 rebuild project in the middle of the city, we exited and cruised Benson Highway (old US 80) to find a place of rest amid the sometimes-gracefully-aging motels along this historic route. We found a nice room at the Redwood Lodge, and although no tall trees graced the property, it was still a clean and decent place to stretch out and figure out how we're going to survive the coming days and weeks.
Truckasaurus again rising to the occasion
We woke from our slumber under the timbered beams of the Redwood Lodge and stepped out into the rapidly warming Tucson morning to begin our day. Our first stop was literally next door, as a hundred-foot stroll brought us to Cindy Lou's Cafe, where the welcoming was warm, the food was yummy, and the race-car themed decor was greatly appreciated by our son. After the chiliburgers and pancakes were devoured, we finished up our repacking while Duncan played with Kira, a bright and cheery girl staying with her family in another of the Redwood's rooms.
After the luggage and squirt bottles were stowed, we turned east on old US 80 and headed out Benson Highway - which after a few turns and a ramp onto I-10 took us to (you guessed it) - Benson. This town still has a few historic motels and cafes along highway 80, but we kept rolling over the San Pedro and up the hill through Texas Canyon and its goofy looming boulders - some "thing" seemed to be luring us onward into its lair.
Since leaving Phoenix, we'd seen occasional billboards advertising a mysterious stop along the freeway - and it seemed like a "thing" that might be fun to see. Well, one "thing" led to another, and we exited at number 322 and parked in front of the brightly colored facade of the buildings housing... "The Thing!" It turns out there are many interesting fun useful touristy "things" in the gift shop (as befitting a classic Bowlin's tourist trap), and Duncan saw a couple of die-cast cars that seemed like just the "things" to add to his treasured collection. Suzanne found a cool highway-themed bag for her "things", and Richard - well, he paid for everyone else's "things". Then into the back of the complex to face "The Thing" - and we all survived our firsthand encounter, although Duncan may have some interesting conversations with his therapist later in life. :)
After our "things" were stowed, we pulled out by a flatbed trailer containing what was left of a Beechcraft that had a rather bad day, and again headed eastward past the playas and cacti of southeast Arizona. We wheeled through Willcox and waved to the friendly fiberglass folks out in front of Carter's Drive In (our tummies were too full to stop, though - but they do have great burgers), and then bumped into Bowie, where an ex-Stuckeys offered a near-ecstasy of ice cream, wind chimes, and a little toy tank that Duncan was allowed to hire to ensure the security of his toys and the rest of the family. After one more bit of fun where Dunc got a bouncy surprise from a little pinball game, we resumed our eastward travel, cruising past the fluttering pink survey ribbons of the ADOT I-10 freeway signing project, on by the big yellow welcome sign, and into New Mexico, where an hour was lost and another state was gained.
First stop in NM was at the brick facade and wooden floors of the Western Auto store in downtown Lordsburg, where Richard found a couple important necessities, including an old-time bottle of pop straight from a classic 60s vending machine (alas, the price was definitely 21st century). Then $3.83 gas at the truck stop, and back eastbound, switching between speedy freeway and quiet side road as we cruised through the afternoon air. We didn't dawdle in Deming, but did doodle through on the business route, then stayed on the old highway east of town, where we had great "fun" dodging lizards, prairie dogs, bunnies, and quail with our momentum-enhanced 6000 lb truck. As the late-day sun was shining on the big balloony aerostat floating above the border skies, we plummeted down the hill into Las Cruces, said goodbye to freeways for a while, exited onto US 70 and found a welcoming room (and kittycat too) under the majestic neon sign of the Royal Host Motel.
Oh, and one one more "thing": What is "The Thing"? Sorry, can't tell ya - gotta go see for yourself. :)
Just one "Thing" after another
Another day, another convenient diner. Pancake Alley lurks right next door to the Royal Host on US 70 in Las Cruces, and so our first item of business was to head over to its checkerboard decor and sit down at the Formica tables for breakfast. The Big Rascal plate was most satisfying for several members of the family, while Richard's club sandwich quickly became a BLT as Duncan decided the cheese & turkey would be perfect with his other items. Then back to the room for a rather chaotic pack-up, complicated by a moment when a plummeting 12-pack of pop impelled by the inevitable force of gravity met the unyielding asphalt of the parking lot. A sticky situation ensued.
Once we were packed-up and de-popped, we rolled east on US 70 up through the mountains and past the campaign billboards: "Vote for me - www.shortbaldhonest.com!" Then on by & beyond the white sands that Duncan frolicked in back in 2006, and on into Alamogordo, where up on the hillside perches the home of the International Space Hall of Fame and Museum. We docked and proceeded to rendezvous with the historic rocket displays out front, seeing in person some of the famous craft that made history in the New Mexico desert and elsewhere during the early years of man's exploration of outer space (hey, if we put that F-1 engine on the truck, we could make it to Alabama in no time - but stopping might be a problem...)
Then on into the museum (note: card-carrying Arizona Science Center members can get in free through a reciprocal membership program), where we gazed at the many displays showing the courageous men and women who have conquered space, and the devices that allowed them to travel, explore, and survive in that challenging environment. The museum is easily worth the admission, and one can spend several hours learning about things most space-ific. Then on to the wonders of the gift shop, where Duncan acquired a sturdy metal space shuttle to be his new winged friend for our ongoing mission.
As we pulled out on to US 82, the Toy Train Depot looked interesting, but the fact that it was closed on Tuesdays made it move into the "visit to be done another time" category. Then into Sonic for a carhop-delivered lunch to fuel us for the afternoon's journey, and then up US 82 (and we mean up) as the highway wound from the valley floor into the cooler pines. A delay for some heavy-duty rock scaling work entertained us for a while, although the 250+ degree reading on the new coolant temperature gauge that Richard had installed in the truck right before we left was cause for a small bit of concern. But after the boulders stopped bouncing and the flaggers waved us through, the truck and its occupants cooled off quickly and we rolled up through the tunnel and cruised by Cloudcroft with few worries. We enjoyed this very scenic but not very speedy stretch of highway 82, watching the deer, wild turkeys, and many many moos make their way through the meadows and pines.
Although most of the forest was closed due to extreme fire danger, we figured that there still might be fun places to see in the hills of NM - and we sure found one at Runyan Ranch (just before the turnoff to Dunken!). We figured that any place that proudly advertises "ice cream" and "petting zoo" had to be fun, although we should note that it is somewhat inadvisable to engage in both of these activities at the same time. We entered the place and were happily besieged by friendly goats, horses, donkeys, and even a rambunctious leaping fish or two, and we distributed food and affection amid the shady trees and curious critters. Then back into the truck and down the hill into the oilfields of southeast New Mexico, passing the sculptures and refineries of Artesia and small towns like Loco Hills.
OK - the sun has riz, the sun has set, and we are not in Texas yet! A long day was ending as we snuggled into Lovington, and here the recent spike in oil prices hit us in a way we hadn't expected, apart from the dizzily spinning numbers on the gas station signs. The historic high crude prices have stirred up a bit of an oil boom in these parts, and the motel parking lots all over town are full of well-used pickup trucks and meat-grillin' roughnecks - which means there wasn't much room for travelin' folk like us. We finally found the last room at one of the motels in town, and the proprietor certainly felt comfortable charging top dollar for it, replying cheerfully "you're more than welcome to find another place within driving distance". The room wasn't bad at all, but the high price (and the busted Internet) did make it a bit less perfect. We drowned our sorrows in root beer at the Burger Builders stand across the street, and then some breezy moonlight playground fun again brought smiles to our Lovington evening.
New Mexico - land of spacecraft and livestock
We had a decent doze in our room in Lovington, and our pack-up and check-out went somewhat smoothly, which gave us a bit of time for some more play on the bouncy rides and steep slippery slides of the park across the street. Then a McDonald's breakfast just under the 10:30 deadline, and a 360 on highway 380 had us heading east for another day of travelicious action.
A few more miles of New Mexico byways brought us into the big state of Texas at a minute before 11, er, noon, and then a few more miles on the eastbound gitted us through the not-so-plain town of Plains and on into the blacktop streets of Brownfield, where the friendly folks at the local Co-op sold us some Farmland fuel and a few other useful utilitarian items as we wandered amid the aisles of plow parts, hand tools, and automotive fixins.
Then on into Tahoka, where the Thriftway market had some bakery rolls and puddings just perfect for some wide-open Texas snacking, and then we settled in for a long drive east on 380 through the prairies and plains, with that gusting south wind bumping us around a bit. One small drawback of the wind is that it's keeping the pasture-ized cows from hearing us when we give them a cheery greeting using the truck's built-in PA, but me mooooove along nonetheless. The wind is affecting the handling, but so far doesn't seem to be hurting the gas mileage. As mentioned earlier, we've kept the speed at 65 or below, and our post-fillup math seems to be showing some positive results - we're now at an amazing (for Truckasaurus, at least) 16.2 MPG and climbing! Given that the half-tank in Brownfield was 75 bucks, this is becoming somewhat important.
The scenery in west Texas is remarkably... consistent, and although Richard and Suzanne don't much mind, we've let Duncan watch movies on Suzanne's new laptop to pass the time a bit more entertainingly. When the movie's done, Duncan does his part by blowing a tune on the harmonica or kazoo, or when our son's blown out we always have the ol' iPod and its thousands of tunes to pass the time.
We veered off 380 and started southeast on US 83, and rounded the courthouse square in Anson and continued on to the bustling burg of Abilene, where we scored some $3.85 Fina fuel right across from the very tasty grub served at Joe's Pizza. Then east on Texas route 36 with our behinds to the afternoon sun, and on into the tree-lined streets of the happy crossroads of Cross Plains. Here the plastic flamingos and toy-laden trees of the West 36 Motel looked like a great place to set down for the night, and we hauled our stuff into the room while Duncan raced the local kids on his tricycle around the walkways and ice machine. Then a quick trip to Dairy Queen for some frozen yumminess to enjoy under the trees, as we chatted with the local kids about our travels and then watched an impromptu football game on the lawn ("No! I want to be the Longhorns - you can be the Aggies!") Then to bed to rest from another busy travel day, and to plan for the times to come.
Good times? More! Day? Four!
We started our day by loading up under the shade of the "shovel tree" at the 36 West Motel in Cross Plains. Notably, this town was the home of Robert E. Howard, creator of the series of books featuring the legendary Conan The Barbarian. In fact, we had no choice but to check out, since the motel was booked solid for the annual "Barbarian Days" festival starting in the next day or so. So, we bought a bacon and egg breakfast at the DQ and rolled out east on route 36.
We drove straight through until we reached the town of Hamilton, where the charming town square seemed to say to us: "Y'all stop here, all right?" This was indeed a wise choice, as there are many fine shops surrounding the square, including a drug store (Jordan Pharmacy) with a genyoowine soda fountain 'round back. We set on the stools and the gal plunked down two ice-cold bottles of 'Dublin' Dr. Pepper (with real cane sugar) right front of us, which went perfect with the Brownie Delight treat also served right off the counter. After this satisfying snack, Duncan spied the sprinklers running on the courthouse lawn, and cooled himself on this very warm day by gleefully running back 'n forth through the streams until he was thoroughly and happily soaked. Mama toweled him off and Dad buckled him in, and then one more trip around the square and out of town, where we almost ran head-on into some giant water tanks being hauled by the many oversize load haulers sharing the highways with us.
Another piece of driving took us to a small town named Crawford, where our Reagan-era truck rolled to a stop in the town made famous as the off-time home of our current (as of 2008) President of the United States of America. We stopped in at Red Bull Gifts, where the nice lady treated us to some Texas-size friendliness. Unfortunately, Duncan was just recovering from a rolling-farm-road-induced nap, and was regrettably behaving like an opposition-party candidate after some rather bad polling data. We were finally able to get Duncan's negatives spun into positives at the Coffee Station (more than just coffee), where we ordered some down-home grub and were rewarded with Presidential-sized portions at a budget-balancing price.
After being fed & feted by almost* all the fine folks of Crawford, and buying a few Dubyaneirs for ourselves and others, we decided not to make a side trip to visit the Prez's ranch about seven miles out of town, figuring that that task was already handled by the demonstrators, counter-demonstrators, and counter-counter-demonstrators. We instead moseyed south to Moody (fortunately by now Duncan wasn't) and turned east to join highway 7 to continue our journey.
A piece down the road is the town of Kosse, sporting about 5 letters in its name and about 500 people in town. The town park with its colorful tables and classic galvanized steel playground equipment was an ideal location for Duncan and his parental units to blow off some pent-up energy, and then back on route 7 around the Crockett square to load up on ice cream and unleaded. Not too many affordable rooms were found in Crockett, though, and we continued into the twilight past the stands of tall trees until we measured the distance to the city of Lufkin. We pulled in under the red neon sign and by the curving glass office of the Sun-N-Pines motel, which just happened to have a big room with fridge, microwave, and playground (well, the playground's outside the room) at a reasonable price. We tucked into bed under the hard-blowing air conditioning and rested from another big Texas day.
*P.S. If you ever find yourself in Crawford, do the right thing and DON'T patronize the "Yellow Rose". They don't deserve your business.
Hamil-Fun in Hamilton
We sloughed off our covers in our Lufkin room and emerged rested for another travel day (after letting Duncan play on the motel's swings and slides, of course). The owner wished us well, we started the engine, and headed east on route 103 for the final miles of Texas. The random play function on the iPod appropriately served up the Specials' "Too Hot" as we rolled into a very warm and humid South-style day, and we tried to think cool thoughts as Truckasaurus' AC system dutifully (and thankfully) blew chilly air from the ducts. After an hour or so (our 49th hour in Texas overall), we bumped across the bridge over the Toledo Bend Reservoir into Louisiana - only our fourth state overall, but a whole lot different than Arizona and New Mexico.
On the east end of the bridge, the Louisiana folks put a little visitors center and lakeside playground, and so our first stop of the day was to hop out and have a bit of relaxation by the lapping waters and under the shady trees. We played ball and swung the swings, and then wiggled our toes in the lakeshore mud, while Duncan took it upon himself to wiggle himself all the way up to his bellybutton in the warm lake water. After Duncan was washed up and re-trousered, we stepped in to the visitor center for an air-conditioned respite from the warm mugginess outside. The staff there was very nice to us, and even gave Duncan an official Toledo Bend balloon to boomp and bounce around with us as we drive across the state. Sticks well to Dad's head with a bit of rubbing, too.
It's spelled "Natchitoches". It's pronounced "Nack-A-Tish". It's a Louisiana town long on wrought iron, Spanish moss, and history - and was a remarkably popular place this Friday afternoon. So, we wended our way past the quaint B&Bs, riverfront galleries, and posh eateries, and headed over the river and out to US 71 for some afternoon cruising southward by the bayous and greenery, as our first rain of the trip washed, er, rearranged some of the thousands of miles of dust we've accumulated.
Around this time, we were feeling a mite hungry for some genuine Southern-style BBQ, and we weren't seeing too many stands in sight along the road. So, we consulted our new traveling companion, the Magellan 3225 GPS, and asked it if it knew of any eateries in the area. It suggested one down the road a piece in Pineville, and so we followed its turn-by-turn instructions faithfully - right to the point it announced "you have arrived" as we saw the collapsed sign and covered-up windows. So, with some trepidation we asked it for another suggestion, and it again directed us over, then right, then left, then left again, and into the parking lot of D&M's Hog Wild BBQ, where we were most thankful for the GPS' guidance to our feasting fix of meaty goodness.
Filled with pork and brisket to satisfaction, we ambled through Alexandria and continued along the winding course of Louisiana route 1 as it paralleled the kudzu-lined levees keeping the waters of the big Red River in check. We continued on past the small villages and big casinos until we saw the small town of Simmesport, on the banks of the sometimes-mighty Atchafalaya River. As we rolled into town from the west, we saw an interesting combination - a pizza restaurant / video store / motel. We ordered up a small pepperoni pizza and a king-size bed, and spent the evening of this most "un-Friday-the-13th-like" Friday the 13th watching Duncan framed by the sunset sky looping around the parking lot on his tricycle, and then being rocked to sleep by the Kansas City Southern trains rumbling on the tracks a few feet behind our back wall.
Louisiana - warm, moist, and tasty
Began the morning doing our usual morning things - snacking, rearranging the food bags and and hunting down the fugitive dirty clothes, checking e-mail & sending stuff to the folks back home - and today, a bonus: watching the live TV coverage of the Space Shuttle landing while Duncan performed a detailed re-enactment with his space shuttle from the museum in New Mexico.
We turned in the key for the room, took out a pizza to go, and turned east on LA 1 for the next-to-last day of our first leg of the trip. We thought we'd try a new road in New Roads, and turned onto Louisiana highway 10 (also part of the Mississippi River Trail). We rolled up to the banks of the broad and mighty Mississippi and noticed that there wasn't a bridge here (yet), but a ferryboat. Since it seemed like a nice day for a boat ride, we prepared to drive the truck on for the voyage across the great river - and that's when we noticed that they'd put up the "FERRY CLOSED" sign. Uh oh. We inquired, and they sadly noted that the ferry had done conked out, and would be out of service for a couple hours.
OK, time to resort to Plan B. Consulting the map, we see that the next crossing of the Mississippi to the north is all the way up in Natchez, many many winding road miles away. To the south, the next crossing is down in Baton Rouge - still somewhat off of our planned route, but a manageable distance. So we wiggled down highway 981 past the moos (and their assigned egrets) munching on the leaning levees, on by the heaping coal piles of the Big Cajun I & II power plants, and on down to the big red US 190 bridge on the north end of Louisiana's capital. Once over the river but not out of the woods, we thought we'd avoid the urbanity of Baton Rouge by immediately heading out to the northeast, but the suburban sprawl still surrounded us for several slightly exasperating miles. However, we eventually emerged back into the open countryside of eastern Looziana, as the truck's odometer rolled a big 230,000 miles on the spinning numbers.
Speaking of spinning numbers, we took a quick stretch break under the kaleidoscopic multicolored palm trees of the Paradise Truck Stop (and mini-casino) out on highway 16. Duncan wanted to try his hand at dat gamin' stuff, but he was politely instructed to be sure to come back in exactly 6,400 days, and then maybe he'd be OK to play (but save your allowance in the meantime).
We've been on the road for seven days, and so the aroma wafting around the back of the truck seems to be saying it's Laundry Day (either that, or someone left the cheese out again). We followed the road into Franklinton, and found a tripleheader of fun - the Dirt Cheap bargain store with all sorts of interesting and inexpensive items (including the doorknobs we've been looking for for a while), the "Salvage Store" grocery, where Valentine's Day M&Ms and Flag Day cookies were very yummy and affordable, and... an air-conditioned non-smoking Maytag-branded laundromat! We cleansed our clothes while sorting our loot from the next-door places, and Duncan watched the cycles spin with rapt amusement.
After the last dryer buzzed, we boogied the final few miles into Bogalusa, where we spied the blue sign of a Zesto's stand. Time for more down-home drive-in dinner favorites, topped off with chilly soft-serve as the warm sun disappeared behind the storm clouds to the west. Then down to the very affordable Choctaw Motel, for a nice Saturday evening rest.
P.S. Congratulations to Matt & Nat on their wedding - sorry we couldn't be there!
Good clean ferry-deprived fun
This day began in our Bogalusa boardings with Duncan presenting his dad with an unexpected Father's Day gift - a very nice hardbound "I Love Daddy" book (that his mom helped out with a bit) containing lots of pictures and love. Then into the truck to bound out of Bogalusa and over the Pearl River into the very verdant state of Mississippi. A few miles into MS, we spotted a sign for "Sheila's General Store and Buffet Lunch", and made a turn to park next to the tin roof and set ourselves down for some heaping plates of roast beef, fried chicken, creamed corn, green beans, biscuits and cornbread, and all the fixins. That filled us greatly, but we still found room for some banana and chocolate cream pie, and some John Deere-themed Fathers Day cake that turned Duncan's teeth green, much to his amusement. We weren't the only ones enjoying the spread, to be sure - once the churches got out, Sheila's was a most busy place, and the wooden floors were pattering with many happy customers.
Once our feasting was finished, we thanked the owners, squeezed out the door, and back into the truck for the final miles of our our outbound journey. We were a bit ahead of schedule for check-in, and so we decided to explore the backroads of way-south Mississippi. The map showed several winding ways between us & Alabama, and so we curved down past the woods and pastures and over the weathered truss bridges and let the miles roll by in a most relaxing manner.
Well, almost. Right about the time that we had gone 10 miles or so beyond where the map said we shoulda turned left, the iPod (just to rub it in) served up Moody Blues' "I Know You're Out There Somewhere", and Richard was just maybe starting to lose faith in the so-far-successful combination of AAA map and GPS that had so far successfully navigated us from Arizona so close to our destination. Fortunately, before we ended up lost forever in the Mississippi woods or submerged in the Gulf, we found another road what went where we wanted, stopped in at the 4 Korners store to fuel up from some old-style pumps and confirm our navigational guesses, and then pop out over the Alabama border onto Airport Boulevard to roll past the kudzu and suburbia and on into Mobile, our destination for the first big leg of this bigger trip.
As we made our way into Mobile, we discovered the signs denoting the southernmost end of US Highway 45. Route 45 is important to the family, as it passes very near where Suzanne was born and raised, and we've traveled many miles of this north-south highway as it runs from Lake Superior to (almost) the Gulf of Mexico. Then on into downtown by the quaint storefronts of Dauphin Street, over by the wharves on Water Street, and into the entry of the Renaissance Riverview Hotel (right about the time that the iPod was a-playin' ELO's "It's Over").
The hotel staff watched with some amusement as we assembled our cart and started hauling our many loads o' stuff up to our 16th-floor lodgings for the next seven nights and two big meetings, and then off to the garage to shut down the trusty Truckasaurus for a well-deserved rest from our outbound journey. After all was somewhat stowed and slightly organized, we spent the remainder of the evening prowling the hotel corridors on a reconnaissance mission, while Duncan wrestled with the funny cylindrical pillows and hopped on the oddly-shaped seats in the hotel's distinctive public spaces. Then into the big fluffy bed to rest up for a busy upcoming week, and the next stage of our travels.
Places to go, states to stick, chairs to sit
Back to The Big 2008 Road Trip Page
Back to Our Big Road Trips Page
Richard C. Moeur's Home Page
Latest Historical Revisionism 24 July 2008Scripting: Richard C. Moeur