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The Way Out West (summer road trip blog)

  1. May 15, 2010 #1

    jtbell

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    I'm on the road, heading from South Carolina to Arizona and southern California and back. I'll post some pictures along the way as I get time.

    Day 1

    I generally avoid the Interstates (motorways to non-Americans) where possible, so I started out by crossing the middle of Georgia, via Macon and Columbus. Shortly after entering Alabama, I stopped in Tuskegee, home of Booker T. Washington's famous Institute (now Tuskegee University). It was late afternoon so the visitor center and museums were closed, so all I could do was drive/walk around and take a few pictures.

    I ended up in Montgomery for my overnight stop.
     

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  3. May 15, 2010 #2

    jtbell

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    Day 2: The Gulf Coast

    From Montgomery, I drove south through Alabama (not along I-65 but the roughly parallel US 31) towards Mobile, but didn't actually go through the city. Instead, I took the ferry between the barrier islands at the mouth of Mobile Bay. Highly recommended if you're not in a hurry. Besides the half-hour boat ride, you get a scenic drive through the islands, including a spectacular bridge between Dauphin Island and the mainland on the west side of the bay.

    Then I went through the Mississippi Gulf towns of Biloxi and Gulfport along US 90 which runs right along the shore. When my wife and I drive through here in 2002, this route was lined with Victorian mansions that faced across the road to the beach. They're all gone now, blown away by Hurricane Katrina along with a lot of the oceanfront businesses. There's been a lot of construction during the last five years, including new casinos, but there's still a lot of vacant land. Maybe the recession has lessened enough that the tourist trade will start to pick up again. The beaches certainly look ready!

    Overnight stop: New Orleans!
     

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  4. May 15, 2010 #3

    turbo

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    Good deal jt! New Orleans is always good for music on the weekends. There is a tiny bar on the end of Bourbon Street (not really the end, but the place where they set the barricades to bar traffic) farthest from the downtown, on the left-hand side of the street. It featured some of the best blues/ragtime/NO jazz piano players ever. One aging old upright piano, and a succession of old black piano-players throughout the evenings. I got stuck in N.O. over a weekend on a business trip, and spent most of Friday and Saturday night in that little bar.
     
  5. May 15, 2010 #4

    dlgoff

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    And there's a (or was when I was there) really neat coffee shop with every kind of bean you can imagine. The smell of all the blends is like heaven.
     
  6. May 16, 2010 #5

    jtbell

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    Day 3 - New Orleans

    It rained on and off most of the day yesterday, so I had to juggle my camera, bag and umbrella. :yuck: I'm impressed by the recovery NO has made so far, at least in the touristy areas.

    My big thing here wasn't jazz, but streetcars. I organize my solo trips around that sort of thing, because there are limits to how much of it I can do when I'm traveling with my wife. :wink: I did wander around the French Quarter a bit (the balconies make good cover for rain showers), and ate dinner on Bourbon St., getting out before the revelry got into full swing.

    Linguistic oddity: a carpet/tile store named "Floor de Lys".

    Today's plan: drive along the river to Baton Rouge, then head west towards Houston.
     

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  7. May 16, 2010 #6
    There's a really long bridge that I drove across in Louisiana, which at the time was the longest in the world. I think you'll be somewhat near it.
     
  8. May 16, 2010 #7

    lisab

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    That would be the Lake Pontchartrain Causeway :smile:.

    Great idea for a thread, jt! I think a leisurely cross-country drive is something every US citizen should do.
     
  9. May 19, 2010 #8

    jtbell

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    Days 4 to 6 - New Orleans to Austin

    Oops, I need to catch up. I got distracted with other stuff the last few nights, but tonight I'm in the middle of nowhere (also known as Van Horn, Texas) so I can fix up a few pictures before going to bed.

    Day 4:

    Started out by driving north along the Mississippi River from New Orleans. A road hugs each bank of the river, but you can't actually see the river because of the high levees. In order to see the river, you have to cross one of the bridges. So I zigzagged from one bank to the other. This area is a curious mixture of small rural villages, old plantations, and heavy industry.

    I passed one place that I thought was a plantation, stopped to read the historical marker in front, and found that it was actually built as a college in the 1840s. It operated under three different names/owners until the 1930s. Then the Jesuits took it over and now use it as a retreat house, the Manresa House. Tourists can't visit it, but they can look at it from the road.

    Then I hit Interstate 10 and ended up just inside Texas for my overnight stop.

    Day 5:

    I continued on to Austin, Texas, with a brief stopover in Houston to see its relatively new light-rail line. A nice feature of this line is that it runs through a fountain in downtown Houston.

    On arriving in Austin, on my way to my motel, the city's new commuter-rail line (which opened only two months ago) runs right alongside the road. The very first train I encountered appeared to have been in an accident! It was stopped on the tracks, with a bashed-in automobile nearby, and emergency vehicles had just arrived. As you can see from the picture, there's no crossing there, so the driver must have turned onto the tracks by mistake. But all I can do is guess, because I didn't see anything about it on the TV news that night or in the newspaper the following day.

    Day 6:

    Spent the whole day chasing trains on the new line. You've already got one picture, so I'll leave it at that. :smile:

    (If any railroad or streetcar buffs are reading this, check out this thread that I started on a railfan forum. I'm posting a more extensive set of pictures there.)
     

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  10. May 19, 2010 #9

    jtbell

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    Day 7 - Austin to Van Horn

    Today I hit the road again. This was supposed to be mainly a "driving" day, but I ended up stopping in various towns along the way.

    The longest stop was in Johnson City, Texas, whose most famous son was President Lyndon B. Johnson. A National Historical Park there includes his boyhood home, his grandfather's cabin, and his ranch which became the "Western White House" while he was in office. I didn't visit the ranch which is several miles outside of town, but I did spend a couple of hours wandering around the in-town sites and the town itself (which by the way is actually named after one of LBJ's cousins, who founded the town on part of his ranch land).

    On a lighter side, I got to see the "world's largest roadrunner" in Fort Stockton, just off Interstate 10.

    With all the stops I made, I ended up having to drive after sunset to reach Van Horn, where I had reserved a room. This caused a problem at sunset, because the sky was perfectly clear, I was heading straight west along I-10, and it looked like the sun was going to set right on the road in front of me! :bugeye: Not good for my eyes. So I pulled off the road at an exit in the middle of nowhere to wait for the sun to set. To kill time, I walked up onto the overpass to take a picture looking down the road. Note the interesting optical effect caused by the reflectors along the road's centerline.
     

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  11. May 20, 2010 #10

    Borek

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    I have subscribed to the thread to not miss anything.
     
  12. May 20, 2010 #11
    I've drivien that route

    When you hit Ariozona it's really going to be hard on your eyes..sun + sand + glare= daylight blindness..
     
  13. May 20, 2010 #12
    Wow, cool trip. I've taken I-40 all the way up to LA. There are some amazing scenery, landscapes and vistas.
     
  14. May 20, 2010 #13

    Integral

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    According to my stereotypes, you are a much braver man then I. Deep south back roads scare me. But then all I know about them I learned in the movies! Perhaps your SC plates help.

    The deep south is the one region of US I have just barely touched. I have spent some time in Kentucky, on the drive back to the west coast I hit Shiloh and Pea Ridge, you look for street cars I like battle fields.
     
  15. May 20, 2010 #14

    jtbell

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    Yep, going west into the sun in the afternoon isn't much fun...

    They probably do, although the Michigan bumper sticker and the alumni decal from a college in Ohio tend to confuse matters. I try to wear South-Carolina themed T-shirts to counteract that.
     
    Last edited: Apr 1, 2011
  16. May 20, 2010 #15

    jtbell

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    Day 8 - Van Horn to Tucson

    Today's stage was entirely on Interstate 10. I've driven this route a few times before with my wife, but this time I decided to stop at a few places that we've passed by, tourist-type stuff.

    For example, a few miles west of Las Cruces, New Mexico, a series of billboards right after each other urge you to stop at the souvenir store at the next exit. The store is hidden behind a much larger Potemkin-village facade of a caricature old-style Western town. I discovered that it actually has a pretty large selection of stuff, and ended up buying a T-shirt. So they finally succeeded with me!

    The small towns in New Mexico and Arizona that I-10 bypassed all have "business loop 10" routes that lead you off the Interstate, through the downtown area, and back. Usually I pull off onto a couple of them to break the monotony, or because we need gas or a sandwich or something. This time I pulled off and went through Bowie, Arizona, shortly after the state line. This is almost a ghost town by now, but it does have an interesting remnant: a now-closed store in the shape of an Indian wigwam.

    According to a book my brother showed me, this is known as "Geronimo's Castle" and was probably built in the 1940s. It's been a gas station, bar, corner store, etc., but has been closed since 2004.

    I'll be in Tucson for a few days, and probably take a day trip to Phoenix, before I go on to Southern California.
     

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  17. May 21, 2010 #16

    Integral

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    Re: Day 8 - Van Horn to Tucson

    Hum, I wonder? My grandmother was born in Bowie Station Az, in 1886. Her mother operated a restaurant there. This is the place where, in 1886, they put Geronimo on the train for Oklahoma.
     
  18. May 21, 2010 #17

    jtbell

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    That's probably the place! According to that book, Geronimo was captured some distance to the south, so if they shipped him off by train this would have been the logical place to send him from. The ex Southern Pacific mainline runs parallel to I-10 around here and goes past Bowie. There probably wasn't much of a town here then, if any, hence the name Bowie Station.

    The Fort Bowie National Historic Site is about fifteen miles to the south.
     
    Last edited: May 21, 2010
  19. May 24, 2010 #18

    jtbell

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    Days 9 to 12 - Tucson

    I took care of some family business, did a little sightseeing and made a day trip to Phoenix (about 1.5 to 2 hours drive one way, depending on how fast you drive). When I arrived last Thursday, my left foot was somewhat swollen because of being in the car for six days and doing a lot of walking the other two days (especially in New Orleans). By Sunday night, after two more days of sightseeing, the foot had gotten worse. So I decided (a) to stay here an extra day, keep the foot elevated, and take Ibuprofen to reduce the swelling, and (b) omit the Southern California portion of the trip and return eastward from here via a different route, basically the I-40 corridor via Albuquerque. I'll take my time as necessary to prevent or reduce further flareups.

    The foot is still a bit swollen tonight, but it feels better and the redness has gone away, so I think I'll be OK to leave tomorrow.

    Although it has sprawled a lot since I first visited here, over forty years ago when I was a teenager, Tucson still has something of a "small town" feel, especially compared to Phoenix. It also doesn't have as much water as Phoenix does, so people here take water usage seriously. You don't have expanses of lush green lawns as in the ritzier areas around Phoenix. People favor "xeriscaping" around their homes (sand, rocks, cactus), and it feels more like you're in the desert (which you really are, of course!).
     

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  20. May 25, 2010 #19

    jtbell

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    Day 13 - Tucson to Holbrook, AZ

    Today I finally started the return leg of my truncated trip. The "normal" route to I-40 is to follow I-10 from Tucson to Phoenix, then I-17 from Phoenix to Flagstaff, which makes an arc west of Tucson. Instead, I headed straight north from Tucson along Arizona 77, which winds its way up and down and passes through small towns like Globe and Show Low along the way.

    The scenic highlight of this route is crossing the Salt River Canyon, first descending to the bottom via a series of hairpin curves, then climbing out by snaking along the opposite side of the canyon. I probably spent 3/4 of an hour going three miles, mainly because I stopped at most of the scenic turnouts to take pictures.

    Whereas the area south of the canyon is a rugged desert, the area to the north quickly becomes pine forest, at an elevation of about 5600 feet. Then the terrain descends and levels off into a flat desert plain. The area around I-40 at Holbrook is almost devoid of vegetation, and is mostly flat or gently rolling.

    Holbrook lies on the old Route 66. Most of 66 in this part of Arizona has been absorbed into I-40, but the "business loops" through Flagstaff, Winslow, Holbrook, etc. use the old road, and these towns promote Route 66 tourism.

    I was hoping to stay in the famous Wigwam Motel, but it's full tonight, so I had to settle for my usual Motel 6. Apparently the Wigwam is rather popular, and unless you're traveling during a really slow period, you need to make a reservation a couple of weeks or so in advance!

    Tomorrow I head east to Albuquerque.
     

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  21. May 28, 2010 #20

    jtbell

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    Day 14 - Holbrook, AZ to Albuquerque, NM

    I need to catch up somehow. I can't believe this was two days and three states ago. (I'm in Oklahoma right now.)

    Anyway, to start off this day, I passed some dinosaurs on my way out of Holbrook.

    The highlight of the day was Petrified Forest National Park, which is a short ways east of Holbrook, right along my route to Albuquerque. My wife and I were there several years ago, but viewing conditions were affected by the smoke from huge wildfires near Show Low, Arizona. Today the sky was crisp and clear, so I went nuts taking pictures. Just to give a sample, here's a lizard (or something; maybe the biologists here can identify it for me) sunning on a petrified log; and a weathered formation called the "Tepees."

    I seem to be on a wigwam / tepee kick on this trip for some reason... :redface:
     

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  22. May 28, 2010 #21

    jtbell

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    Day 15 - Santa Fe, NM

    The main point of this day for me was to ride and take pictures of New Mexico's new commuter-rail service, the "Rail Runner Express" which connects Albuquerque with Santa Fe to the north and Belen to the south, a total distance of nearly a hundred miles. I can't resist slipping in a picture of the train because of its cute graphic design. Beep-beep!

    The ride between Albuquerque and Santa Fe is very scenic. I stayed in Bernalillo, about 15 miles north of Albuquerque, which has a Motel 6 and a Super 8 within easy walking distance of the train station, much cheaper than staying in Santa Fe itself.

    Between trains in Santa Fe, I had enough time to eat brunch and walk around a bit. It would have been well worth a full day of "normal" sightseeing (easily do-able with the train schedule; my priorities were elsewhere on this trip). As it happens, the city is celebrating its 400th anniversary this year. Its landmark building, the Palace of the Governors, was built around 1610-1612, and served as the seat of the Spanish and Mexican governors of New Mexico until 1846 when the United States won the Mexican-American War. Native American vendors have been plying their wares along its front literally for centuries.

    (The palace is now part of the New Mexico Museum of History.)
     

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  23. May 29, 2010 #22

    jtbell

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    Day 16 - Albuquerque, NM to El Reno, OK

    Yesterday was a long "driving day," taking me across half of New Mexico, all of the northern Texas panhandle, and about a third of Oklahoma, mostly via I-40.

    About 3/4 of the width of the Texas panhandle is a flat treeless plain called the "Panhandle Plains" or the Llano Estacado. I've been through other flat areas of the country (e.g. near the coast of South Carolina, or in Ohio around the southeastern end of Lake Erie, or the prairies of Illinois), but this is different. There are no trees to obstruct the view, and farms are huge so clusters of farm buildings are very far apart. You can see to a straight horizon in all directions, with green, yellow and brown below, and blue and white above. The highest elevations except for radio and TV towers are the expressway overpasses. Some people would call this boring, but I find it oddly compelling.

    I turned off I-40 occasionally to drive through the smaller towns along remnants of the original US 66. Shamrock, Texas has an interesting former gas station that now serves as the local chamber of commerce office. And just into Oklahoma, I found part of what must be the original 66 next to the wider version that I was driving on, which in turn had been demoted to county-road status when I-40 opened nearby, just out of view to the right of the picture.
     

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  24. May 29, 2010 #23

    Redbelly98

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    Re: Day 13 - Tucson to Holbrook, AZ

    Living in the northeast, it just sounds weird to hear interstate route numbers that low. Below 76 is unheard of around here (NJ).
     
  25. May 29, 2010 #24

    jtbell

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    Day 17 - El Reno, OK

    My goal in visiting El Reno today was its short natural-gas powered streetcar ("trolley") line that connects downtown with the county historical museum in the former railroad station, and is operated by the museum. Unfortunately for me, and unusually for a tourist attraction, both the museum and the trolley were closed for Memorial Day weekend!

    So I took today as mostly a "rest day", shopping and doing laundry. I also visited El Reno's main historical attraction, nearby Fort Reno, which was established in the 1870s to counter Native American uprisings, and continued in operation until shortly after World War II as (apparently) the Army's main site for breeding and training horses and mules. Yes, the US Army actually used them in WWII, in places where motor vehicles couldn't go, such as the southeast Asian jungles.

    Fort Reno also had, for three years during WWII, an internment camp for about a thousand German prisoners of war. The POWs helped with maintaining the fort itself and its 15,000 mules, and some worked on farms in the area. Some of them are still there, in the fort's cemetery, in a separate walled-off section, not far from frontier cavalrymen of the 1870s and 1880s. Actually only one of Fort Reno's own POWs died while there; the rest were from other camps in Oklahoma, plus some Italians who had been held in Texas.

    The first picture shows the entire cemetery, not just the POW section, which is a strip along the rear of the main section, not visible from this direction.

    The fort was closed soon after WWII. The US Department of Agriculture now uses it as a research station, and some of the buildings are being maintained as a museum by a local organization. Nothing is left of the POW camp.
     

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  26. May 31, 2010 #25

    jtbell

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    Day 18 - El Reno, OK to Fort Smith, AR

    I hit the road again, heading east mostly on I-40. My only sightseeing stop along the way was the Oklahoma City National Memorial on the site of the federal office building which was destroyed by a truck bomb a bit over 15 years ago, killing 168 people. The street which ran in front of the building is now the site of a reflecting pool. The area once occupied by the building is now a grassy lawn with metal-and-glass "chairs", one for each person killed, arranged in a grid according to which floor they worked on, and the horizontal position on that floor.

    During the 45 minutes or so that I spent wandering around and reading the interpretive signs, probably about a hundred people came or went, even though it was mid-morning on Sunday and downtown Oklahoma City was otherwise mostly deserted.

    My destination for the day was Fort Smith, Arkansas, just over the state line from Oklahoma. A streetcar-preservation group there has restored one of the city's last original streetcars (which ended service in November 1933) and operates it along an abandoned freight railroad track through downtown, with some new track added on both ends.

    This type of car, the Birney Safety Car, was an attempt to make streetcar operation less expensive, at a time when people had started to buy automobiles in large numbers and streetcar ridership had started to decline. It's lightweight, has only a single four-wheel truck ("bogie" to those of you who speak British English) mounted under the center of the car, and was designed for "one-man operation" (motorman only, instead of motorman plus conductor). It was used a lot in small towns like Fort Smith, and on light-traffic lines in larger cities. Its single truck made it rock and sway alarmingly on poorly-maintained track.
     

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