For those keeping score at home, the final stats for the Banjo Tour:
- Duration: 20 days
- Distance: 6,913 miles
- States: 17 (California, Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Tennessee, Kentucky, Indiana, Illinois, Missouri, Kansas, Oklahoma, Colorado, Utah, Nevada)
- Nights spent in the back of a Subaru: 14
- Cajun meals: 4
- Caves visited: 2
- Fun factor: 9.5
View Larger Map
The approximate route. Google wouldn’t let me enter enough dots to create the exact route, so know that there was less interstate, a lot more Natchez-Trace Parkway, a bit more Oklahoma, and a number of additional side-trips.
A lack of internet access and free time over the past couple of days prevented journal entries. Here’s the recap:
The 500 mile drive from Greensburg, Kansas to Vail, Colorado led through Dodge City, past the slightly-odd Monument Rocks in west-central Kansas, and on to Denver for a quick visit with Scott & Anna of Accenture, San Francisco and Galapagos fame. Following Scott’s house tour (“we don’t even use this room”), a demo of his Evel Knievel Halloween getup, and some bemused looks from Anna, I headed off into a snowstorm and the pants-crapping drive on dark and snowy I-70 through Vail Pass at an elevation of 10,666 feet.
Vail is a ridiculously good place to ski. It’s been about six years since the last time I was on the slopes so I wasn’t quite prepared for what was about to happen, but this resort was insane – the runs were more than twice as long as anything I’ve ever done before, the skiing conditions were outrageously good, and with Aaron’s employee discounts the costs were tolerable. I managed to mostly not die, even though at one point our attempt to ski the “In the Wuides” trail resulted in a wrong turn that actually took us in the woods; navigating trees and boulders in three foot deep powder is a bit more than this novice was prepared for, but in the end we emerged alive and my quads should be recovered by some time in mid-2011. A tremendously good day by any measure.
After breakfast with Aaron I left Vail at 8AM – LA was 934 miles away, and, since weather on this trip has been an ongoing challenge, it was only fitting that flooding was taking place in the parts of Utah, Arizona, Nevada and California that I would be driving through. It was a bit surreal hearing national news stories on the radio about flooded areas, only to be passing them as I was driving – the trees in New Harmony, Utah were under 10-15 of water as I went by – but overall it was a mostly uneventful drive that ended after fourteen hours with a return to Culver City and an end to a very good trip.
Monument Rocks. They are slightly odd in the context of a huge expanse of prairie.
The Holliday Brothers in Vail.
Yesterday in brief:
- The Nature Conservancy’s Oklahoma Tallgrass Prairie Preserve was as good, if not better, than the NPS-managed Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve in Kansas. With 39,000 acres the vistas were awe-inspiring, and the 2700 bison were a nice touch.
- The Salt Plains National Wildlife Refuge was added to the itinerary because I’m incapable of ignoring green dots on the map. This turned out to be a very good thing – in addition to the hundreds of thousands of birds (a number reported by the refuge that I fully believe), from today onwards I can no longer answer the question “Have you ever seen an armadillo” in the negative.
- The morning’s location is Dodge City (of “Get the hell out of Dodge” fame), followed by a trek towards Vail to see younger Holliday. Another day in Kansas/Oklahoma actually would have been a good thing, but a giant snowstorm heading east from California says otherwise.
The Tallgrass Prairie Preserve in Oklahoma.
Ryan’s first armadillo. For about a minute he didn’t seem to mind me being six feet away, then suddenly I became terrifying and he was off at full armadillo speed (apparently about two miles per hour) across the forest floor. Also, a note to aspiring photographers: make sure the focal point is the head, not the posterior. Doh.
Sunset in Kansas. This photo had the potential to be something very special, but the logistics of trying to pull off the road while traveling 70 miles per hour, rush down an embankment, and set up the camera while the light fades was more than my limited photographic ability was prepared for.
The tiniest bit of sun would have made today a great photo day – the tallgrass prairie is really pretty – but unfortunately Mother Nature had other plans. Despite the overcast the day was a good one for hiking, and eight miles of roaming allowed tons of time for reflection. A resolution for 2011 may be to make an effort to do at least one long hike a month, ’cause it’s a mighty good way to sort out what few thoughts my working neurons generate.
After a day on the prairie enjoying the scenery and the company of hawks and eagles, the plan is to do more of the same tomorrow across the border in Oklahoma. It turns out that the Nature Conservancy owns most of the land on which the Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve sits, as well as a larger preserve in Oklahoma, so it’s encouraging to see where support for this organization is going.
The Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve. The one-room schoolhouse visible on the right was built in the late 1800s and operated until the 1930s.
The great expedition of discovery to Kansas was pushed back a day – instead I spent a chilly and icy morning slipping on the walkways near the Gateway Arch and the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial in St. Louis, followed by a drive across the rest of the Show Me state. After a mid-morning departure from St. Louis the state’s backroads led to the capital of Jefferson City, so I detoured and explored what turned out to be an amazing Capitol building that was almost completely open to the public – maybe it’s because the state government is on holiday break, but there were no security checks and no one seemed to mind that a slightly hairy, fairly smelly 35 year old was roaming the halls.
The afternoon led on a roundabout tour past the distressingly touristy Lake of the Ozarks – I quit counting after the fifth go-cart course and ten millionth houseboat – and this journal entry is being made from a Starbucks at the state’s western edge, just outside of Kansas City. The plan for the rest of the night and tomorrow includes heading into Kansas to try and find a place to park the Subaru for the evening, followed by a morning visit to the Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve. After that it’s anyone’s guess what other wonders the amazing Sunflower state might have to offer.
I was sliding across icy walkways at dawn with frozen hands trying to figure out how to photograph the Gateway Arch in a way that hasn’t already been done a million times when I heard a flock of geese flying up from the Mississippi River – problem solved.
The Missouri Capitol was an unexpected find. I only had a half hour (parking issues…) but managed to roam all over this impressive structure, including through the giant rotunda.
Before yesterday the trip’s direction generally led away from home, but starting today the distance from Culver City will begin shrinking. At the farthest point I think the Subaru was 2050 miles from his home, although at the moment that distance is down to just 1852 miles (“1 day 7 hours with traffic”). Kansas, Oklahoma, and a visit to Aaron in Vail lie in between. For the more immediate future, I haven’t quite figured out tomorrow’s plan. A quick visit to St. Louis seems like the leading option since, despite two visits to this city during college, all that I’ve seen is the track on the campus of Washington University and a park that they use for cross-country meets.
Looking back at the past two weeks, this trip started without a real plan aside from trying to visit some new places and to get out on the road. Unlike some trips, I didn’t try to stay anywhere long enough to get to know it – this trip ended up being more about constantly experiencing something new, and I think that has worked out for the best. Driving along and seeing the landscape change, talking to different people, eating different foods, and all the while recognizing that despite the differences it’s all part of the same country has been revitalizing. While it has its faults, the US really is an amazing place, and seeing so much of it in a short time provides a good reminder why I wouldn’t really ever want to settle down somewhere else.
It turns out that weekdays in December are a ridiculously good time to visit Mammoth Cave. The Frozen Niagara Tour and the Historic Tour had “participant limits” of 36 and 110 people, respectively, but only five people were on each tour today. According to the ranger who led the first tour, they get 5000 people a day during the summer, and the day after Labor Day that number immediately drops to 300 per day. Today there were perhaps 30 people in the park.
My love of spelunking is well documented, and today continued that proud tradition. I probably would have spent more time underground, but the requirement for visiting Mammoth Cave with a ranger and an imminent winter storm limited the options. That said, the Frozen Niagara Tour (which I remembered from a trip when I was eleven) and the Historical Tour (which I’d never done before) were both awesome – while Carlsbad has bigger rooms and more decoration, Mammoth was carved by underground rivers and as a result has hundreds of miles of passages, some the size of highway tunnels. During the two tours a handful of very creepy cave crickets and cave spiders appeared from the shadows, and a very cute pack rat and tiny bat also made appearances. Some interesting facts:
- Organized tours of the cave began in 1816, making Mammoth Cave one of North America’s oldest tourist attractions.
- Last year the length of surveyed passages was 360 miles. This year it is 392. They expect to be over four hundred miles of explored caves by summer. Mammoth is easily the world’s longest cave system.
- The cave has twenty-eight entrances, seven of which are natural.
- The name of the cave comes from the giant passageways, not the prehistoric elephant.
Tonight I’m in Bloomington to visit Audrey (she’s on a job at the University of Indiana) then, weather permitting, it’s off in the direction of Kansas and Oklahoma for some further exploration.
Walking through a large passage in Mammoth Cave, which is awesome.
Last night was spent in a hotel – $40 for a bed, a shower, and the opportunity not to sleep in the back of a car in 18°F temperature was well worth it.
The earlier experience on the Natchez Trace Parkway was so good that I decided to detour 80 miles back to it and traverse the remaining 150 miles. Unfortunately the road was closed due to icy conditions (I assume) thirty miles from its terminus, but until then I enjoyed more birds, deer, turkeys, history, hiking, and life in general. The opportunity to drive across three states without seeing any stop signs, businesses along the road, or anything but forest and farmland is one that I don’t think is available elsewhere in the country, and it was greatly enjoyed.
Tomorrow the plan is for more caving in Mammoth Cave National Park, then it’s up to Bloomington to harass Audrey for an evening. After that Kansas and Oklahoma are on the agenda, although Mother Nature apparently decided that a massive cold front offered insufficient hardship and is now also whipping up snow & ice storms, so hopefully the roads will remain open in the coming days.
A channel of the Sweetwater Branch along the Natchez Trace Parkway. It’s cold.
Anything on the map that in any way relates to spaceships tends to be difficult for me to avoid, and thus it was that today’s destination was the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama. After a cold (temperature: 19°F) pre-dawn wakeup followed by another thirty or so miles of the Natchez Trace Parkway, the Subaru and I set off across Northern Alabama in search of rockets. At about ten o’clock the top of a Saturn V became visible on the horizon, and from that point onwards my mood was of the sort that usually leads Audrey to disavow that she actually knows me.
The space center is home to a museum that features a Saturn V rocket that was never sent into space. It’s the largest and most powerful space vehicle ever produced by man, with each of the five first-stage engines measuring twelve feet in diameter, and a total rocket height of over 36 stories; I was giddy. In addition to the Saturn V, the actual Apollo 16 command module, tons of mockups from other missions, and a “Rocket Garden” with everything from full-scale models to test vehicles were all on display. Since it was a Monday in December the staff seemed to outnumber visitors, so there was plenty of space to take it all in. While I generally try to keep him at bay, today the inner geek ran wild and free.
Saturn V third stage. You would think there would be lots of amazing photos to show off the day’s sights, but for some reason what little photographic ability I might once have possessed seems to have disappeared on this trip.
It’s snowing. The day started at a balmy 38°F and has dropped since – the moment it hit 32°F snow started flying horizontally in the brisk wind. While this hasn’t stopped the exploration along the Natchez Trace Parkway, it has forced the appearance of a very scratchy wool hat that I bought many years ago from an tiny Indian woman in Ecuador; I love this hat, but the wool combined with the lack of recent haircuts have led to much head-scratching.
After waking up at six I got back on the parkway, and alternated driving, hiking, and stopping to read about early American and Indian history along the way. Thus far I’ve stopped at three different Indian mound sites, three different swamp hikes, and too many nature walks and early settlement sites to count. Overall the Natchez Trace has proven to be a great find, and one that I could recommend to anyone who likes history and nature. Other notable sights have included a tree that was filled with at least thirty vultures, a giant pileated woodpecker, turkeys, hawks, deer, and even one owl who visited my campsite last night.
Life is more exciting with thunderstorms in it.
Much like New Orleans, the state of Mississippi has thus far defied my expectations. Before arriving here the preconception was of an impoverished state full of cotton fields, but the reality has instead been forests, small towns, and rural character. A random dirt road along the Mississippi River led to lakes filled with hundreds of egrets, and the Natchez Trace Parkway has been an amazing find, home to deer, Indian mounds, and really pleasant scenery.
The present moment finds me sixty miles along the 444 mile long parkway, camped for the night in the back of the Subaru with rain pouring down, thunder blasting, and lightning flashing. Tomorrow’s forecast calls for cold and windy but sunny, so further exploration will definitely take place.
I met an old friend from the long-ago Andersen Consulting days for lunch today and partook of barbecued oysters and a shrimp & oyster po’boy – New Orleans continued to impress with its food. Cregan was brave enough to bring his wife along, and hopefully I didn’t frighten her too badly. His life since last we spoke included buying a house in New Orleans thirty-one days before Katrina – apparently insurance kicks in on day thirty, so he is insanely lucky if such a thing can be said of someone whose house ended up under five feet of water.
The day’s other activities included more roaming the streets of New Orleans, more wildlife refuge visits, and, after two horrid and uncomfortable nights of beds and showers, a joyous return to sleeping in the back of the car. The plan for tomorrow is to invade Mississippi, although thus far on this trip I’ve gotten distracted by everything from bridges to birds to trees to massive radio telescopes, so no plan is in any way certain.
Gas lamps in the French Quarter.
St. Louis Cathedral. A man with a name tag explained all of the flags, but I was clearly not paying close enough attention to be able to relay any information that is even moderately accurate.
New Orleans more than redeemed the state’s reputation as a culinary wonder – the peppercorn-barbecue mahi mahi and shrimp at dinner made the little men in my stomach do dances and compose epic poems, and the gumbo that preceded the main course replaced the slightly-dirty flavor of yesterday’s offering with equal amounts of deliciousness, joy and rainbows.
As is clear from the previous paragraph I’m now in New Orleans, but the trek here had its own noteworthy moments. I-10 actually travels over swamps for 18 miles, and that portion of the road is the tenth longest bridge in the world. The engineer geek in me was salivating while the nature lover was digging the scenery, so I got off at one of the two exits and spent three hours exploring the swamps. Sadly, without a canoe the really scenic parts of the swamp were unreachable, but what I was able to see was still a good change of pace from the Southern California deserts. It turns out I’m a HUGE fan of the cyprus trees in these waters, so I might need to figure out a way to work Congaree National Park into this roadtrip in order to spend more quality time with these water-loving giants.
Arrival in New Orleans was in mid-afternoon and with low expectations; however, while the prior expectation of a dirty, sleazy, crowded city may encapsulate some parts of what’s here, to a much larger extent it’s a lively, old town with as much character as any city that I’ve ever visited. A boutique hotel in the French Quarter served as a base for exploration, and I was able to roam along the Mississippi, through Jackson Square and the old St. Louis Cathedral, and down random roads past voodoo shops, art galleries, cafes, bars, street performers, carriages, trees filled with thousands of chirping birds (literally), and past all manner of unique sights. A future trip now seems infinitely more likely, although not during Mardi Gras when I suspect the “dirty, sleazy and crowded” factor rises dramatically.
After five nights spent in the back of the Subaru, tonight I’m clean and in a bed; angels sang out during my first shower in far too long.
The day’s activities included visits to several national wildlife refuges along the Gulf Coast that were home to ridiculous numbers of birds. I saw more hawks than I’ve ever seen before, and the never-ending flocks of geese and other birds that were arriving was awe-inspiring. Sadly there were no photographs – I suspect that, for a bird, when people shoot at you during certain times of year then posing for pictures isn’t a courtesy you feel needs to be extended.
Since I didn’t quite make it to New Orleans the plan is to head in that direction tomorrow. While in Louisiana I’m making an effort to sample as much Cajun food as possible. The verdict so far: Boudin (a sausage whose ingredients I dare not investigate) is tasty, shrimp po’boys are good but not extraordinary, and the seafood gumbo was decent except for the strong taste of dirt; hopefully the food in New Orleans will redeem the state’s culinary reputation.
If the Google is to be believed today’s route covered about 560 miles across the state of Texas; thankfully I’m now at the Louisiana border and the “ungodly amounts of driving” portion of the trip should give way to the “exploring the Southeast” stanza. The rough plan for tomorrow is to wake up early and roam around some of the eighty-nine million (give or take) wildlife refuges along the Gulf Coast, with a stop for the evening in New Orleans to follow. Based on signs outside of restaurants I’ll likely also be eating some weird, weird things over the coming days – I don’t know exactly what a Boudin is, but it’s apparently on the menu.
Today started with some driving, followed by more driving, then more driving. Repeat that about ten times and it encapsulates the majority of the day’s activity – it takes a ridiculously long time to cross the Lone Star state in a car. The two interludes were a stop at Inman’s Kitchen for what was advertised as being “Voted #1 Barbecue in Central Texas” (I believe it) and a break in Austin to give the Suby some love in the form of new oil and, since I’m a sucker for mechanic scare tactics, a new battery. Despite going completely stir crazy as the miles went by it was a surprisingly nice drive – while I wasn’t a fan of the pervasive oil stench of East & West Texas, Central Texas is really pretty and the people I encountered exceeded the South’s reputation for friendliness & courtesy. Having deer everywhere, including a jumper – the fence he easily cleared was probably four feet high – was a nice bonus.
The universe intervened on the roadtrip last night, and after driving for an hour without finding anywhere suitable to spend the night White Sands was removed from the itinerary; I probably should have known that overnight parking areas would be limited near a national monument surrounded by a government missile testing range, but I’m not often accused of having an overabundance of brain matter.
Missing White Sands probably worked out for the best as Carlsbad was further away than I realized, and despite waking up before 7AM, arrival time at the park wasn’t until after 10AM. From there the fun began: Ryan loves him some caves. Photos of Carlsbad can’t do it justice – the cave formations are probably more amazing than any other easily-accessible cave in the world, but the most awe-inspiring thing (to me) is how big it is. There are multiple rooms with ceilings well over a hundred feet high, and the aptly-named “Big Room” is 4000 feet long and 625 feet wide at its widest point; it’s tough to imagine how something like this could be engineered by man, much less occur naturally.
After four hours of romping through the cave it was time to leave, and I’m now making a beeline for Louisiana, although a large state that smells strongly of oil lies in-between. I haven’t quite figured out what the route across Texas will be, but it’s likely to take most of the day tomorrow, after which this roadtrip will be in uncharted territories and hopefully involve much more exploring and much less driving.
The Big Room. Clever comment about the genius behind the name is left to the reader.
The Chandelier. I’d guess that the largest stalactite in this formation was easily over ten feet long. It’s also visible in the previous photo.
The town of Winslow was along the route last night so I decided to be a tourist, stopped, and yes, stood on a corner. I didn’t see a girl in a flat-bed Ford (my Lord) but there was a guy in a F150, so mission accomplished.
Today I woke up just before sunrise to a temperature of 38°F, drove to the gates of Petrified Forest National Park, and, while the horizon turned amazing shades of purple, stared in horror at a sign indicating the park didn’t open for another hour. That disappointment aside, the four-hour park visit was a good one – there were far too many photos and far too little hiking, but the supposed goal of this trip is to visit the Southeast so some sacrifices are needed.
What little plan there is for this roadtrip calls for getting to new places as quickly as possible and limiting the number of visits to old haunts, but White Sands and Carlsbad Caverns are kind of on the way, so I pointed the Subaru in that direction. I’m doing my best to travel backroad highways as long as there is daylight, so I was debating the merits of three possible routes when a dot on the map caught my attention: National Radio Astronomy Observatory. From that point the route was clear, and the fifth of December 2010 will live forever as the day Ryan went to the Very Large Array. The geek juices were flowing strong as I came upon 27 radio antennas, each 25 meters in diameter, spread across 22.3 miles of a high mountain plain. Sadly I only arrived with an hour to spare before sunset, but made the most of it by hurriedly visiting each part of the facility that didn’t have an “authorized personnel only” sign. Am I a huge dork? Clearly. But I am a very happy dork.
Blue Mesa in Petrified Forest National Park. “Why is it called the Painted Desert” is a question that is infrequently asked.
One of the 27 radio antennas that make up the VLA. Each one is twenty-five meters across and totally awesome.
The day started at sunrise (6:30) in the deserts of Southern California and, with the possible oversight of a stop at a diner, took on all aspects of the classic American roadtrip from there. After a short drive across the border into Arizona the road led along the Colorado River and Lake Havasu. Following a short hike in the Bill Williams National Wildlife Refuge I actually made an attempt to find the bridge in the town of London Bridge – an authentic bridge from the Thames River that was bought & transported to the Arizona desert in the 1960s – but it may be a good thing that this bit of Americana eluded me.
From there the path led along the quintessential road trip route of America: Route 66. With the advent of the Interstate Highway system the “Mother Road” mostly disappeared, but in places it has been revived, and at least in Western Arizona it is a throwback to 1950s America. The hotels that are left have neon signs, the gas stations sport vintage advertising and pumps, Burma-Shave messages line the road, and the stores aim to capture the roadside-stop mystique from yonder years.
In addition this route has waaaaay more than its share of roadside attractions, and one particularly noteworthy one was the town of Oatman. A gold mining town in the early 1900s, when the mines shut in the 1930s the town started dying, but it has resurrected itself as what Wikivoyage accurately describes as “equal parts touristy kitsch and real, honest-to-goodness Wild West atmosphere”. Burros whose ancestors were owned by miners have now gone wild, but they come into town each day to block the only road, poke their heads in car windows, and search out the carrots that local merchants sell by the bag. The downtown has been re-imagined as a wild west town, in no small part due to a 1960s makeover during the filming of How the West Was Won. Despite the revisionist history, a number of the townsfolk struck me as best described as “grizzled”, and there was a charm to the place that I enjoyed but couldn’t quite figure out. Outside of town there are still active mining claims, and a few of the “no trespassing” signs had an unmistakable “trespassers will be shot” undertone. Overall, I left the town liking America just a little bit more for being home to a place like this one.
Remove the sticker, choke a burro. Don’t do it.
Due to two factors – a sudden and massive burst of productivity, and an equally massive burst of complacency – the Subaru and I left the confines of Culver City nearly a day and a half later than might otherwise have been expected. On the long and traffic-filled drive through the never-ending four- and five- lane highways of the Inland Empire there were surprisingly some second thoughts – the question of whether it might make more sense to spend additional time focusing on getting some work done was actually being seriously considered – but there was no way that argument was going to win; with rare exceptions I can’t recount any of the innumerable times that I’ve gotten a lot done in a week, but with the possible exception of some family trips when I was still newly hatched every adventure of my life remains a vivid memory.
This trip is slightly different from any recent trips in that the goal is mainly just to have the sort of rough, guy-on-a-roadtrip adventure that hasn’t happened in a long while. There’s a goal of trying to visit an unexplored corner of the country and a desire to try to take new roads and limit visiting the sites of past adventures, but realistically the trip could lead anywhere. At 35 I’ve got this vague sense that things are different from when I was 25, and that I might somehow be more insulated from what made trips in my younger years so special, but I’m hoping the next few weeks proves that intuition wrong.