Are We There Yet?

According to last Sunday’s New York Times, the heyday of the family roadtrip was in the 1950s and 1960s as the expanding system of interstate highways resulted in quicker driving times across the country. Long summer car trips remain a rite of passage in the US and during the July 4th weekend, when Mike, Mattie and I embarked on our own road trip, over 30 million American families did likewise (although the average 730 miles clocked up was somewhat less than the 6000 we undertook…)

We began our journey on Texas Highway 90, driving westwards from San Antonio through a landscape of scrub and mesquite interspersed for miles with the glorious pink-purple blossom of Texas sage. At the Mexican border we then drove through part of Texas that is flat, empty and quite otherworldly; at Seminole Canyon State Park, an area first inhabited 12,000 years ago and where we stopped for a picnic, we were the sole visitors in the July heat, the only sound that of the wind which kept blowing our picnic cups and plates away. We continued north-westwards on Highway 90, briefly stopping at the tiny town of Langtry, by the Rio Grande, where the infamous Judge Roy Bean practised law at the end of the 19th century (he named the small town after his favourite actress, Lily); and late afternoon at the splendid Gage Hotel in Marathon where a white buffalo head adorns the bar. Marathon, once the cradle of the west Texas cattle business, lies in rolling prairie land, at the foot of the Davis Mountains, where antelope roam. ‘I feel as though I’ve had a holiday’s worth already,’ I told Mike as the three of us sat in the hotel bar. ‘Wait till you see the rest of it,’ he chuckled.

The following morning, after overnighting in El Paso, we crossed the border via New Mexico into Arizona and on our approach to Tucson, in the Sonoran desert, the landscape became filled with ocotillo trees, organ pipe and saguaro cacti. Tucson, the second largest city in Arizona, is most gloriously surrounded by five mountain ranges; at the foot of one is the cactus-filled Tucson Mountain Park and after lunch in the old quarter we had a stroll around the park before our onward journey to Flagstaff, gateway to the Grand Canyon. The altitude became higher and the terrain gradually changed to mountains covered in pine forest (though it was dark by that time, and stormy, and only when flashes of lightening illuminated the sky were the pines visible).
The morning of our second wedding anniversary was spent at the south rim of the Grand Canyon. What must the native Americans, and the first settlers, thought when they first saw the Canyon? I wondered. Its impact was even more striking when we left the tourists and drove along the eastern end of the Canyon. We then continued further into northern Arizona on a fabulously beautiful road which skirted the edge of the Navajo Indian Reservation and gave onto breathtaking vistas of the aptly named Vermillion cliffs. The landscape was just as breathtaking all the way to Utah.

Our first night in Utah was spent in an adobe hotel in the town of Kanab, and in a nearby restaurant we enjoyed smoked Idaho trout and Mike and I, a glass of fine Washington State wine. The following morning, at the supermarket, where we replenished our picnic supplies of turkey, bread and fruit, Mattie was fascinated to see several women from a Mormon sect, all sporting long Victorian-like dresses and Sarah Palin-like hair. On our onward journey, we stopped at a German bakery for some delicious croissants and a loaf of rye bread stuffed with olives, then drove for a couple of hours through lovely, gently undulating farmland pasture. This changed abruptly as we entered the Red Canyon, in Dixie National Forest, an arid desertscape of red sandstone pinnacles. Just 30 or so miles further on was the Bryce Canyon National Park, an isolated area which contains thousands of fantastically shaped, pinkish-red carved spires and pinnacles (or hoodoos). Violet-green swallows and ravens flew in and out of the canyon as we walked around, taking photos, and Mattie was particularly thrilled to spot a couple of chipmunks. We spent the night in northern Utah, just outside Salt Lake City, and following her sighting of the Mormon women in Kanab, Mattie was looking forward to visiting the Mormon Temple the next morning. After a brief (and somewhat underwhelming for Mattie) viewing we picnicked at a pretty lakeside beach and bird reserve and worked out the route to take through Idaho.

I had no preconceptions of Idaho. ‘It’ll be very pretty,’ Mike said. In fact, it was truly gorgeous – not flashy like Arizona and Utah with their stunning shades of reds and pinks: Idaho is more subtly beautiful, a land of blue-greys and soft purples. On first entering the state we drove through a vast, quite awe-inspiring plain, which we learned was the birthplace of the nuclear navy and site of many nuclear reactor experiments. The plain is 900 square miles in total, completely flat, and so open that at one point the wind pushed our (rather large) vehicle rather frighteningly into the opposite lane. The scenery and colours changed as we left the plain and began our drive through the Salmon River mountain range, stopping in the early evening for a picnic at an idyllic lakeside setting with a sandy beach; several people there were fishing. On our approach to the hamlet of Challis, where we were to spend the night, the sun was setting and we were thrilled to spot a mountain lion cross the road before us. Later that evening we enjoyed the motel’s outdoors jacuzzi that gave onto the mountain range, and the next morning a delicious country breakfast of poached eggs, locally made sausage and hash browns. Invigorated, we drove on through northern Idaho, tracing the canyons of the Salmon River, and during one photo stop marveled at the sight of two golden eagles on a low branch of a tree. By early afternoon we had crossed the border into Montana, our destination Missoula, a university town where Mike’s eldest daughter, husband and two grandchildren live.

The afternoon of our arrival in Missoula, we enjoyed catching up over fish tacos and quesadillas, a walk on the nearby mountainside that can be seen from Courtney and Andrew’s kitchen window, and later, a gin and tonic, watching the sun set from their balcony. Mattie loved spending time with her two small step nieces. During our stay, we decided on a trip to the Glacier National Park, situated in the Northern Rocky Mountains, just south of the Canadian border. The Park consists of more than a million acres of forest, alpine meadows, lakes, rugged peaks, glacial-carved valleys, mountain lodges (which reminded me of Switzerland) and lots of grizzly bears (unfortunately we didn’t see one). In 1850 the park had 150 glaciers but now, sadly, there are only 25 active ones. Looking back, our visit to Glacier Park must come close to the top of all the highlights of our road trip, though Mike, who insisted on doing most of the driving, including along the hairpin bends with sheer drops, would probably disagree – especially as we had miscalculated the distance and it took five hours to get back to Missoula after departing the east end of the Park. Eek! Even so, the scenery was gorgeous every mile of the way and as I looked over the vast plains to the south of Glacier Park, I imagined them full of buffalo and Indians on horseback. After arriving back at midnight, whilst everyone went to bed, Mike I shared a glass of wine and had a chuckle about our epic trip.

On departing Montana and re-entering Idaho for a while, we drove through the Bitterroot and Clearwater mountain ranges, an area where, in 1877, the Nez Perce Chief Looking Glass and his tribe had camped on their way to seek refuge with Sitting Bull across the Canadian border. (Looking Glass was shortly thereafter killed by a Cheyenne army scout). Later, we briefly crossed into Washington State, where rolling hills were covered literally from top to bottom with golden wheat, then across the border into eastern Oregon, spending the night in Pendleton, famous for its woollen mills founded in the late 1800s and as a maker of fine Indian trading blankets. The following morning we bought some handsome cushions and a saddle blanket for our sofa back in San Antonio then drove along the beautiful Colombia River, which separates Oregon from Washington State. Turning southwards, I spotted, to the west, the huge snow-capped peak of Mount Jefferson, one of the major volcanos in the Cascade mountain range.

Eastern Oregon is desert like, shades of yellow and pink, quite lovely, again quite empty and there always seemed to be a snow-capped volcano on the horizon. After a late patio lunch in the hip central Oregon town of Bend, where a film festival was in progress, we had a pleasant drive around the Cascade Lakes, which are surrounded by thick forests – mostly fir trees – and enjoyed lakeside views of further volcanos and marshland sprinkled with wildflowers and geese. At 7.30pm Mike became worried that we might find it difficult to find a hotel room in this much visited part of the state and we were indeed lucky to get the last room in the only hotel in the next town. After an hour in the hotel jacuzzi and a restful night’s sleep we headed the following morning for Crater Lake National Park. The glorious Crater Lake lies inside a volcanic basin and is the deepest lake in the US, filled almost entirely by snowfall, and when I look back at my photos, the lake’s colour (a bright blue with emerald tinges) and clarity are surreal. We then forged on to Ashland, to stay a couple of nights with my old friends Jim and Neil. (Those of you who have read ‘Dear Mummy Welcome’ will recall that Jim and Neil indirectly introduced me to Mike in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico). Ashland is a small town noted for its annual Shakespeare festival, and people flock there from around the US. It was fun to catch up in Jim and Neil’s lovely arts & crafts home and when we drank margaritas on their patio I was reminded of the last time we did so, all of ten years ago, in Mexico.

From Ashland we headed straight for the Californian coast, emerging at the small town of Crescent City which was disappointingly enveloped in sea fog. Luckily, the sea fog mostly cleared as we drove southwards along this rugged coastline where cliff tops and cliff sides are almost completely covered with wildflowers in shades of scarlet, cream, yellow, lavendar, pink and orange. The beaches, too, are covered in part with blossoming dark pink and yellow succulents and orange poppies, and many birds are flocked on the craggy rocks. Some of the coastal towns sport quite lovely Victorian buildings in pristine condition. And not to mention those magnificent redwoods preserved in the many State Parks up and down the northern Californian coast…Our first night in California was spent in the Victorian town of Fort Bragg, which was in fact founded as a military garrison, not a fort, prior to the Civil War. The next day we followed the coast as far as the lighthouse at Point Arena, then turned inland, through countryside roads lined with eucalyptus trees and blossoming wild fennel, and fields dotted with old wooden farmsteads, Jersey cows and the odd herd of elk. We then hooked into Highway 101, towards San Francisco, arriving there exactly two weeks after our departure from San Antonio.

Our time in San Francisco, in the home of Michael’s youngest daughter and family, was all too short but we did enjoy a few hours in the quite un-touristy coastal town of Pacifica, just a few miles to the south of the city. In the evening we ate at an excellent Italian restaurant on Potrero Hill where one can enjoy wonderful views of the San Francisco bay area and city skyline. Mattie again loved having time with her little step nephew and niece. On our day of departure, after a late Mexican breakfast in a local café in the Mission district, we said our goodbyes, yet again packed up the car and continued southwards along the Californian coast to Big Sur. We luckily hit the tourist traffic just right because there was hardly a car in sight as soon as we left Carmel, at the start of Big Sur. The scenery was simply breathtaking especially as the sun was gradually sinking in the sky, at times disappearing behind a low band of cloud, so that the coastline looked quite different each time we turned a bend. At around 8pm we had nowhere booked for the night and were getting quite anxious as there was hardly a sign of habitation. Then, around another bend, appeared the hamlet of Gorda (“fat” in Spanish) and the ‘Vacancy’ sign was happily illuminated. That evening, from our balcony, we watched the sun finally disappear into the Pacific Ocean whilst hearing sea lions bark on nearby rocks. It was all quite enchanting. The next morning I noted a well outside the inn and learned that the fresh springs in Gorda were once used by native American tribes; that the first white settlers arrived in 1878 when a stagecoach stop was built and that the place further expanded with the gold rush of the 1880s – interesting that such a tiny place, now sporting only a few gas pumps and a small inn, was once such a hive of activity.

The following morning we set out with the plan to follow the coast as far as San Luis Obispo – one of California’s oldest communities and about 200 miles north of Los Angeles – and then turn eastwards, towards Texas. We enjoyed a brief glimpse of Hearst Castle at San Simeon where, in the 1920s and 1930s, William Randolph Hearst entertained the Hollywood and political elite, including Charlie Chaplin, Greta Garbo and Winston Churchill. We also visited the nearby Hearst Memorial Beach where a poster warned visitors not to remove whale bones from the beach. A little further down the coast, at a small seaside town called Cayucos (“Canoes”) we ate an excellent lunch of halibut and chips (as good as any fish and chips that I have had in the UK!), washed down with a glass of fine Californian wine. Turning eastwards, we took a cross-country route for a couple of hundred miles through a quite forbidding craggy landscape where almost the only sign of life was a gas station in the middle of nowhere. The terrain later flattened out and became alternately lined with oil derricks, cotton fields, orange groves and vineyards. Early evening we joined Interstate 40, spent the night at Needles, just across the border from Arizona, and the following morning continued on the same interstate, driving through Kingman, Arizona, once a famous stopping point on Route 66. We later enjoyed a picnic lunch at Walnut Canyon National Monument where we learned that the very impressive and well preserved cave dwellings there were constructed during the 12 and 13th centures by Sinagua Indians. We crossed the border into New Mexico late afternoon, enjoying beautiful, typically New Mexican, scenery all the way to Albuquerque where we enjoyed an excellent dinner in a wine bar, and spent the night. We were now just a couple of days from San Antonio…

From Albuquerque we drove south-east through some impressive, though unusually (for New Mexico) flat countryside, passing through small towns like Artesia, known for its artesian wells and dotted with oil derricks. We enjoyed a surprisingly good Mexican lunch in the infamous town of Roswell and visited its international UFO museum and research centre: in 1947, during a severe thunderstorm, an airborne object crashed on a nearby ranch and although residents were adamant that it was a spacecraft containing extraterrestrial life, the military denied it and the incident has been subject to conspiracy theories ever since…

We crossed the border into west Texas during the early evening, spending the night at Fort Stockton. Interesting that, apart from parts of California, the approach to Fort Stockton was the only time during our road trip we experienced traffic problems – this time, due to the oil trucks and pickups going home after a day’s ‘fracking’. Fort Stockton was established in 1859 to protect the San Antonio-San Diego mail route from the Comanches and I recalled that we had passed through the town during our first ever road trip with Mattie, when she was just five…

Three weeks after leaving Texas, we arrived back in San Antonio. We all slept very well, and very late, the next several days…

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