Stops 15 and 16: Memphis, Tennessee – Madison, Georgia

For one night, Oklahoma City was the most luxurious town in the world. I am sure the posh $500 a night hotel room that we paid $99 for had something to do with that. We certainly lived it up in our short time there, feeling like we were VIPs. After our satisfying room service breakfast and espressos, we headed east to Memphis, “Home of Elvis and the ancient Greeks,” as David Byrne would say.

Our host in Memphis was our friend, Dr. Amber Slaven, a classmate of Sarah’s from her graduate work at WKU. One of the great things about this trip has been encountering generosity and hospitality from all sorts of people, and it was nice to see an old friend. We didn’t have a lot of time to hang out in Memphis, but we did want to do something “Memphisy,” so Amber took us to the perfect spot, a BBQ joint called A&R. It was a shabby, rundown building on Elvis Presley Boulevard with metal grates over the windows and an anthropomorphic hog on its sign. The food, however, was delicious. We left Graceland and the Stax Museum of American Soul Music for a future visit, and in the morning headed east to our next destination.

We spent the next night in an old cabin on an alpaca farm just east of Atlanta, Georgia near a town called Madison. Our quarters were rustic and comfortable, and we slept with the windows open and enjoyed the night air. Tomorrow, we’d head to Holden Beach, North Carolina, joining my family. We have essentially shared the last three weeks’ experiences together, and now we’d be in a much different environment!

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From a tiny rustic cabin to this. But I think we can handle a week here…

But it will be nice to have six days on the coast—we’ve been moving nonstop for the past three weeks. I’ll have just one or two more posts. Thanks for following our journey.

Stop 14: Oklahoma City, Oklahoma via Amarillo, Texas

Our route eastward from Tijeras, New Mexico on Interstate 40 brought us right through Amarillo, Texas. To one passing through at 80 miles per hour, it might not seem to be a place of intrigue. And despite being the “Helium Capital of the World,” I never would have thought much of Amarillo. But 12 years ago, that all changed.

In the summer of 2006, Sarah and I were not together. We met in August of 2004, so this separation was a momentous change for both of us. She was off in California, working at a winery. I was a line cook at Arlington in Richmond, Kentucky. I started emailing her. Texting her. Calling her. We started talking again. I told her I was going to come to California and bring her back to Kentucky. In short, what ended up happening was we both rented cars (I was under 25 and could not legally rent a car, but that’s another story; Sarah was, too, but California has different laws) and planned to meet at what seemed like a midway point: Amarillo, Texas. Suffice to say, this place looms large in our legend.

We reunited on October 7, 2006 in Amarillo, Texas. I booked a room at the I-40 Motel 6 (I was 24 and broke). I got there first, and Sarah arrived a few hours later. We slept for about 7 hours—both of us had driven non-stop for over 17 hours or something. When we woke up, we drove around looking for a restaurant. We found Blue Sky. I won’t drone on and on about their amazing burgers (get the green chiles with it) and fried jalapeno rings (fresh peppers = more heat), but I will say it was the site of our first meal as a reunited couple. Even without the sentimental value, it is insanely good. If you are ever passing through Amarillo and you are in any way feeling a bit hungry, you must go to Blue Sky. To do otherwise would be the wrong move.

Fueled up on delicious food and nostalgia, we headed to Oklahoma City. We’re staying at the 21c Museum Hotel. My wonderful sister, Emily, works for the corporate arm of 21c, and she booked us a room that is bigger than our house. Seriously.

We toured the exhibits (much of which was hung by our friend, Marcus, who also works for 21c), had a cocktail (or two) at the bar, and Sarah had a Swedish massage at the spa. While she was out, a room service tray appeared at the door—champagne and salted caramel turtles, courtesy of Emily, I’m sure (shoo-in for Sister of the Year). It was a bit surreal living in such luxury after spending so many nights in a tent, or a conventional hotel room. But I wish we could stay more than one night—the best part of staying in a nice hotel is when you don’t have to leave the next day.

Tomorrow: breakfast at Mary Eddy’s, the hotel restaurant (dinner there tonight!) and then we head to Memphis, where we’re staying with Amber, a fellow school teacher and folk studies friend from the Bowling Green days.

Thanks for reading.

Next stop: Memphis, Tennessee

Detour Flashback: Highway 1, California (near Garrapata State Park)

 

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Garrpata State Park, California

I’d be remiss if I didn’t share some of the beautiful sights along Highway 1 in California. On our way to Las Vegas from Monterey, we took a brief side trip south on Highway 1. We picked up some coffee in Pacifica, and I tried to eat a delicious Mexican pastry I’d bought the previous night in Berkeley. It was delicious (think giant cannoli with a delicious custard inside), but I ended up with powdered sugar all over my pants.

We pulled over a few times to look at the coast. Dramatic cliffs, waves smashing into rocks, vibrant hillsides covered with wildflowers, cool tidepools, and bunnies. Bunnies everywhere.

Here are a few photos from this little detour. I just realized my photos have all recently acquired a black smudge in the top right corner of each frame, and after cleaning my lens, it persists. I think they still look pretty good, though. I hope you enjoy.

One more post tonight from Oklahoma City, then off to Memphis.

Stop 13: Petrified Forest National Park, Arizona – Tijeras, New Mexico

Stop 13: Petrified Forest National Park, Arizona – Tijeras, New Mexico

Today’s drive was from the North Rim of Grand Canyon National Park to Tijeras, New Mexico, just off Route 66 east of Albuquerque. We started the morning at Point Imperial—the photos were in the previous post—and started the long drive toward Albuquerque, former home of Walter White.

On the way, we made a stop at Petrified Forest National Park. The process that turned this wood into various-colored quartz is a long one—these trees were already fossilized when dinosaurs like Tyrannosaurus rex were walking the earth. What was most striking about the trees is that you can see the pattern of the tree’s bark, and the circular structure of the tree’s rings. We took in a few vantage points and drove up to the Painted Desert to hop back on Interstate 40. The badlands of this part of the country have such a complex beauty—the harshness of the landscape belies the diversity of the life that finds a way to exist there.

We stopped for lunch in Gallup, New Mexico at a weird old joint called El Rancho after Sarah repeatedly pointed out the billboards. It is an old hotel/restaurant built by D.W. Griffith’s brother and originally opened in 1937. It is funky and cool. We ordered meals called the Leo Carillo (tacos) and the Anthony Quinn (chili, green or red).

We had planned to stop by the Petroglyph National Monument, an urban park on the west side of Albuquerque featuring thousands of ancient petroglyphs, but it closed at 4:30 and we got to town at 5:18. We found a grocery and headed to our lodging for the night in Tijeras. We stayed at a treehouse (of sorts), complete with a kitchen, queen bed, and a bathroom. It was nice to sleep in the desert air with sprigs of lavender under our pillows.

Next stop: Oklahoma City, Oklahoma

Stop 12: Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona

We did not leave Las Vegas until we had visited the In-N-Out Burger location and ate burgers for breakfast. Our road to the Grand Canyon’s North Rim would take us back to southwest Utah, so we decided to make a quick detour to see the Dinosaur Discovery Center in St. George.

 

At this site in 2000, the property owner was leveling a hill on his property when he uncovered hundreds of fossilized dinosaur tracks. It is a major find, and the family set aside the land for scientific and educational purposes. The site charges a modest $6 entry fee and allows visitors to get up close to the tracks, which are preserved forever in giant sandstone slabs. St. George, in prehistoric times, sat on the cusp of a big lake that made the preservation of the tracks possible. We saw tracks from dinosaurs walking, running, swimming, and even sitting. It was pretty cool. 30 minutes later, we were back on the road and almost passed by another In-N-Out Burger, but I loudly protested that it would likely be our last chance, so we stopped in again.

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Fossilized dinosaur track at Johnson Farm

We entered Grand Canyon National Park through the North Rim entrance, which is much less crowded and sits at a higher elevation, making the temperatures a bit cooler than the South Rim. We saw a herd of bison a few miles from the park entrance, which was a first for us. Our campsite was about 25 yards from the rim of Transept Canyon, a magnificent side canyon. We set up camp and drove out to the Walhalla Plateau for some sightseeing. We had heard Cape Royal is an outstanding place to watch the sunset, so we made the 23-mile drive out, found a comfortable vantage point, and sat and watched the sunlight play with the colors of the canyon on the east side of Cape Royal. It was stunning. The Grand Canyon is a place you have to see to grasp. It is so vast and immense, and it makes every other canyon I’ve seen seem small.

The next morning, we woke up early and drove to Point Imperial, the highest vantage point in the entire park. It sits about 8800 feet above the canyon floor. To put things in perspective, from this point on the canyon rim the Colorado River, which carves the canyon, is about 11 km away. It was a beautiful way to start our day. Even though our time at Grand Canyon National Park was short, it is a place that quickly inspires awe.

Next stop: Petrified Forest National Park, Arizona – Tijeras, New Mexico

Stop 11: Las Vegas, Nevada

Of all the places we’ve been, Las Vegas turned out to be the least picturesque. I didn’t take but one photo here.

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View from our room on the 26th floor of the Paris Hotel and Casino. 

What we did do was walk around, eat some decent sushi, drink, and win $19. Big time. It was fun, if not a bit overwhelming.

But I don’t have much to say about this place. Every casino is basically the same. It’s kind of like Gatlinburg. People push babies in strollers on the streets here, which seems crazy. The fountains at The Bellagio were very cool to watch, and we could see it all from our hotel room windows.

Tip: buy beer from the vendors with coolers on the street. So much cheaper.

I’m glad we visited, but I don’t see a reason for us to come back here. We certainly had fun, but they call it “Lost Wages” for a reason.

Next stop: Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona.

Stop 10: Monterey and Carmel Valley, California

As we left the Shochat’s house in Berkeley on Sunday morning, there was a dingy miasma of ash falling from the sky, remnants of the brush fire that burned in the Concord area, northeast of Berkeley. The smoke, combined with the fog and the ash, made the morning feel like a dystopian version of itself.

We drove to the city, across the Bay Bridge and towards Golden Gate. After having been in the area for the last couple of nights (and after spending an entire day in San Francisco), we still hadn’t seen the Golden Gate Bridge. Well, we crossed it twice this morning and I still have only seen the roadway and the lower portions of the cables. The air was too hazy to see much else. But we managed to get onto Highway 1 and headed south toward Monterey. We stopped for some coffee in Pacifica, and the morning fog slowly began to lift.

The coastline in this part of California is beautiful and rugged, lined with eroding cliffs, and jagged rocks. Waves hurl themselves at the coast here. Shorebirds congregate along with harbor seals and sea lions. The surf was filled with surfers and the few sandy strands of beaches were dotted with walkers and beachcombers, enjoying the last day of their weekend. We stopped repeatedly to take in views and snap photos. The further south we drove and the higher the sun got, the clearer the day became.

We finally made it to Monterey. John Steinbeck, one of my favorite writers, wrote of Monterey in his novel, Cannery Row:

“Cannery Row in Monterey in California is a poem, a stink, a grating noise, a quality of light, a tone, a habit, a nostalgia, a dream. Cannery Row is the gathered and scattered, tin and iron and rust and splintered wood, chipped pavement and weedy lots and junk heaps, sardine canneries of corrugated iron, honky tonks, restaurants and whore houses, and little crowded groceries, and laboratories and flophouses.”

It is not like this anymore, of course. As Steinbeck later acknowledges, now Cannery Row fishes for tourists. It is clean, orderly, welcoming, and pretty. Our main reason for visiting Monterey was to visit the Monterey Bay Aquarium. On the way to the aquarium, we stopped at the bust of Steinbeck on the waterfront and beheld the Pacific Biological Laboratories, workplace of the marine biologist Ed Ricketts, basis for Steinbeck’s character, Doc, in Cannery Row. We also saw the Bear Flag Restaurant that features prominently in the book.

The Monterey Bay Aquarium is an amazing place. We entered about 40 minutes after it had opened, and while it was still crowded, we were able to see exhibits comfortably and at a reasonable pace. The aquarium sits right on the edge of the bay, so visitors can venture out the back of the facility to view the bay and spot seals, sea otters, and other marine creatures. The aquarium has two incredibly impressive exhibits. The first is a kelp forest with natural sunlight, currents, and diverse species of fish. It was like looking into the ocean through a thick plate of glass. The second is called The Open Sea. It is a massive tank with a viewing wall stretching 90 feet wide. The room is dark and soft, ambient music quietly plays in the background. The tank features a massive school of sardines, some yellowfin tuna, Pacific mackerel, hammerhead sharks, giant green sea turtles, a few huge stingrays, dolphin (the fish), a mola (sunfish), and more. It was mesmerizing to watch. Another of the other highlights of the aquarium is the sea otter exhibit. Otters are a favorite animal of mine, and these were adorable—they floated on their backs and groomed themselves with great care. I think they enjoyed being so popular. To make the day even more fun, I ran into a young woman who will be in my AP Literature class next year. Small world.

We left the aquarium and embarked on the 17-Mile Drive, a scenic tour of the Pebble Beach area. We got to stand a few feet from the 18th green of the iconic Pebble Beach golf course and watch a man flail wildly at his ball in the bunker. I think it took him three shots to get the ball out. He paid about $500 to play the course, so maybe he was just getting his money’s worth and staying on the course as long as possible.

Our next stop was to get some lunch, so we went to the In-N-Out Burger, a place I’ve wanted to visit because of its reputation for great burgers, but also because of The Big Lebowski. The burgers and fries were top notch, among the best fast food hamburgers I’ve ever eaten. It’s hard for me to rank food because I like all of it, but In-N-Out is in an elite category.

Then it was off to Carmel Valley to our Airbnb for the night. We have a private apartment attached to a house with outstanding views of the valley and a warm saltwater pool for relaxing. A couple of bottles of local Pinot Noir and Cabernet Sauvignon, and you’ve got a near perfect evening. Also, the bed is a TempurPedic.

This marks the end of our journey westward. Tomorrow, we’re headed back east. Thanks for reading.

Next stop: Las Vegas, Nevada.

Stop 9: Muir Woods National Monument – Point Reyes National Seashore – Berkeley – San Francisco, California

We left Yosemite and headed west toward Manteca. Our next stop was Muir Woods National Monument, and we were armed with parking reservations and a 30-minute window. We crossed the bay via the Richmond-San Rafael Bridge, which goes right by San Quentin prison. After winding through town and down through some canyon roads, we reached Muir Woods.

On this trip we have seen the largest living things in the world (giant sequoias), the oldest living things in the world (ancient bristlecones), and, at Muir Woods, the tallest living things in the world (coastal redwoods). Of course, all these living things are trees. Growing up in Kentucky, one’s experience with trees does not include standing next to a 330-foot tall tree, walking around a tree with a 40-foot diameter, or touching a tree that began growing almost 4,000 years ago. It is a surreal experience. Muir Woods was the last of these tree showcases we visited, but the experience was no less extraordinary.

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Walking through the groves of coastal redwoods was very different than experiencing a forest of giant sequoias. The redwood forest was shadier, lusher, greener. The floor of Muir Woods is blanketed with ferns and a type of sorrel. The sunlight is filtered through a canopy, giving the whole place a stained-glass-church kind of feel. We walked through the woods for about two hours. It is a tree lover’s paradise.

We left Muir Woods and headed to Point Reyes National Seashore. I had never seen the Pacific Ocean, and in a couple of hours we were standing by the Point Reyes lighthouse, looking out over a big and wild ocean. The wind was fierce, so we didn’t stay at the Point for long but headed to South Beach to more intimately see the sea and sand. The drive out and back to Point Reyes is so interesting for someone used to east coast beaches. The land at Point Reyes is filled with dairy farms, deer, and tall grasses. The surf at South Beach was tremendous and intimidating. Signs everywhere warn visitors not to go in the water—great white sharks, and more dangerously, rip currents and “sneaker” waves. We snapped a few photos, felt the weird west coast sand and the cold water of the Pacific between our toes. Our next stop was Berkeley.

We arrived at Berkeley an hour and a half later. We were graciously hosted by some wonderful, loving people (Ashley & Guy and Ivy & Alex & Ben) who made our stay comfortable, gave us suggestions for visiting San Francisco, and made us feel at home. Berkeley is a cool town where pedestrians have the right of way, good tacos are plentiful, public transportation is accessible, and you can fall asleep to the sounds of a mariachi band at a party down the street. My kind of town in many ways.

After some much-needed showers and laundry, we headed to San Francisco for our Saturday. We took the BART from Berkeley to San Francisco (a 25-minute train ride) and walked around the Ferry Building where a farmers’ market is held on Saturdays. The inside of the Ferry Building is also filled with fishmongers, cheesemongers, and other assorted mongers who sold doughnuts, coffee, beer, wine, meat, pastries, ice cream, etc. It was like a mall, but instead of stores that sell clothes no one can eat, it was filled with delicious gourmet food you most certainly should eat. Brunch was a Dungeness crabcake sandwich and a small beer.

We then moved on toward Fisherman’s Wharf to visit the Musée Mécanique, but before we got 300 yards from the Ferry Building, we’d already stopped for more food. This time we stopped at a place called Seaside where we spent just $40 and were given black mussels with basil puree, an amazing bowl of chowder made with littleneck clams, two mimosas, and a bloody mary. And they say San Francisco is expensive! After our second meal of the day, we made it over to the Musée Mécanique, which is a super weird collection of old arcade games, coin-operated automata, player pianos, zoetrope, mechanical fortune tellers, and more. It is free to enter, but you have to supply your own money for the machines. You can also just post up by the change machine, wait until a dad comes by with a $20 bill, and follow his family around. That way, the whole enterprise is free.

We also ate more chowder at the Wharf.

Next stop was Chinatown. We walked about 30-minutes to Chinatown and found a little dim sum house in an alley. You know a place is going to be good when it is in a basement and on the way to the front door you passed at least two rooms that looked like illegal gambling operations. It was good. Really good. Pot stickers, dumplings, egg and spring rolls, some insanely delicious chicken, a scallion pancake, sesame balls, and steamed pork buns. We ate it all and went back out to the alley. We walked to the Dragon’s Gate, saw a dragon dance, and then walked to Telegraph Hill in North Beach. The views from the hill were obscured by fog and smoke from a brush fire, but it was still beautiful—especially the views of the city. Unfortunately, there wasn’t food here.

San Francisco is easily the most unique big city I’ve ever visited. It is quirky and funky and weird. Way quirkier, funkier, and weirder than any place I can think of. I regret that we did not have more time to spend there, but I plan to return. The city itself has such interesting features—the bay, the hills, the layout of the streets, the architecture—and the people of the city are so incredibly diverse.

We got back to Berkeley a couple of hours later and played darts and drank beer with Ivy and Alex at this cool and funky joint called The Albatross Pub. Then we headed to Casa Latina for more food—tacos, namely. A perfect way to end our time here. It’s almost time for us to start heading back east. Thanks for following.

Next stop: Monterey – Carmel Valley, California

Stop 8: Yosemite National Park, California

We left Sequoia National Park and headed to Yosemite via Fresno. Yosemite is one of those places etched in the American consciousness. Ansel Adams to The North Face logo to Looney Tunes, Yosemite is everywhere. We were excited to visit the park, and our expectations were exceeded. Yosemite National Park is the most spectacular natural place I have ever had the privilege of visiting.

We arrived and set up our camp in Wawona, about a 45-minute drive to Yosemite Valley. Our first day was mostly spent strolling around Yosemite Valley and Village (we did see Lower Yosemite Falls and Bridalveil Falls), but the Village reminded us of Disney World. We also did a lot of lazing about in our hammocks and catching up on good books. We found the campground in Wawona to be quiet and peaceful. Our site had a lot of space and the Merced River was just a short walk away. We planned to do some bigger drive/hikes the second and third days.

We woke up early on the second day and headed to Sentinel Dome. Sentinel Dome is a high, round, granite monolith that peeks up the valley across from Half Dome. The hike was pleasant, and after a steep walk up the back of the rock, you could see the gorgeous Yosemite Valley—the cliffs, the waterfalls, the rivers. We had the place mostly to ourselves. After we descended, we drove to Glacier Point. Glacier Point offers some of the most majestic views the park has to offer. It’s hard to top the views from Glacier Point. We read that when the valley was filled with glacial ice, the glacier reached heights of about 700 feet above Glacier Point. Insane.

The next day, we woke up even earlier, drove to the Valley and hit the trailhead for Vernal Falls and Nevada Falls: about a 5-mile hike, but with a 2,000-foot elevation gain. The hike to Vernal Falls was fun. A large amount of spray and mist hit us as we walked the granite steps to the top of the cliff. The views at the top were spectacular. We kept walking up, past Emerald Pool and to the top of Nevada Falls. This was the strenuous part of the hike—think lots of steep and tall steps and switchbacks. All on uneven, rocky ground. The top of Nevada Falls was part grandeur and sublimity and part terror. The sheer power of the melted snow rushing off the cliff is truly something to behold. We also saw a bear just off the trail on the way down. It made us a little sad, knowing that bear/human encounters usually are bad for the bear (and there were a lot of people on the trail), but it was a cool experience. We spent the rest of the afternoon cooling off in the beautiful and clear Merced River, just a short 3-minute walk from our tent. The sun was hot and the river was refreshing and cool and clear. It was a beautiful way to end our stay at Yosemite.

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Merced River near Wawona Campground. Perfect spot for post-hike therapy.

Next stop: Muir Woods National Monument – Point Reyes National Seashore – Berkeley and San Francisco, California

Stop 9: Berkeley & San Francisco, California

 

Stop 7: Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks, California

Today we saw two of the biggest trees on the planet. The General Sherman and the General Grant. Both of these massive sequoias are impressive to say the least. But if you’re planning on visiting this park, skip the Sherman tree and go see the Grant tree instead. No one was at the Grant Grove while the Sherman tree was surrounded by dozens of people waiting in line to get a photo snapped. But I still can’t get over how enormous these trees are. It almost doesn’t seem real. Truly amazing. The highlight of this day, however, was not the giant trees.

We decided to make the long drive to the end of the Kings Canyon Scenic Byway. The drive, which takes you from the top of a stunningly deep canyon down alongside the rushing South Fork of the Kings River. This was easily the most beautiful river I have ever seen. I doubt the photos will do it justice, but the water was a bluish hue I haven’t seen outside of Pelican Point miniature golf in Myrtle Beach. The water tumbled and tore down the canyon, rushing over boulders, creating large rapids sections followed by strangely calm sections of deceptively still water. And there was no one there.

We saw two impressive waterfalls. Grizzly Falls was one of those high cascades where the water feathers and mists down the rock. The other, Roaring River Falls, shot out of an opening in the canyon like a spewing fire hydrant. Finally, we reached a place called Zumwalt Meadows. Here, the landscape turned lush, vibrant, and green. We were surrounded by tall grasses, ferns, and unmatched views of the big rocks lining the canyon, like the 8,500-foot-tall Grand Sentinel and the 8,700-foot-tall North Dome. The drive to and from Roads End was harrowing, but beautiful. One of the most amazing drives I’ve had the pleasure to experience.

We were surprised to see so few people in Kings Canyon. In fact, the most people we saw at this park were parked at Roads End, the gateway to a massive tract of wilderness in the park: no roads, just trails and a few well-placed ranger stations. We wished we had camped in Kings Canyon, but we’ll have to save it for next time.

This will be the only post for the next few days as our next stop is three nights. I’ll get back to you all then. Thanks for following our adventures

Next stop: Yosemite National Park, California