June 18 – July 6, 2002
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Three years to the day since our last big driving trip through the Southwest to California, “Sally” was again fully loaded and raring to go – this time to the beautiful coastal town of
|Betty & Sally at California winery|
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Sally really got a workout, adding 4,104 miles to her odometer and putting her over the 20,000 mark. Much of that was through scorching, desert heat as high as 112 degrees at speeds of about 80 mph with air conditioner wide open. She also carried us through heavy smoke from forest fires that blotted out the sun and reduced visibility to a few hundred yards for 100 or more miles, through nasty smog and bumper-to-bumper traffic in L.A. and past the spectacular views of the California coastline along Highway 1.
We had planned on taking a somewhat different route through Texas and the desert for this big trip so we could see some different sights. (An account of our 1999 driving trip, with photos, is posted at lewis_nolan/WEST1.HTML). Besides, we wanted to skirt a terrible traffic choke point on Interstate 40 in Eastern Oklahoma, where an errant barge had dropped a bridge over the Arkansas River a few weeks before. About a dozen people had lost their lives in the accident when the towboat’s captain blacked out one night. His tow slammed into a bridge support pier, knocking a span and several vehicles into the dark water. Expectations are that it will be months before the bridge can be rebuilt. In the meantime a goodly percentage of the nation’s truck traffic has been re-routed on rural roads through the area and officials have asked for travelers to use different routes if possible.
The main purpose of this year’s trip was to visit our son, Casey, 27, who has been living in Santa Barbara for two years. He is a project engineer for Clark Construction, which is building a huge rocket launch facility at nearby Vandenberg AFB. We had offered to help him prepare for his impending relocation to Boston, where he will enter Harvard’s MBA program this fall. But as it turned out, he had already taken the necessary steps to minimize the aggravation of moving across the country. So in the absence of any packing/lifting or related chores, we were free to enjoy Casey’s company when he wasn’t at work. Plus, we had the use of a spare bedroom in his rented condo on a hillside overlooking Santa Barbara. It made a great base for our sightseeing excursions.
We made the decision to drive following our trip to Ireland in March. We had flown from Memphis to Shannon, Ireland, for a delightful revisit to the Dingle Peninsula during Betty’s weeklong Easter break from teaching high school. But we had been much annoyed by the redundant and ridiculously overzealous security procedures in Boston’s Logan Airport. So rather than use our frequent flier mileage or try to catch a deal on a flight to L.A., we decided to drive and thereby forego all the security/delay/lost baggage hassles that seem to accompany most of our air travel vacations.
Evidently, there are a lot of Americans making similar decisions. The airline and lodging industries continue to reel because so many people who don’t have to fly are deciding to drive or simply not go. The hassle just isn’t worth it. Even before the terrorist murders of about 4,000 innocent people Sept. 11, 2001, Americans were becoming increasingly disgusted by the poor service of the airlines – tight seats, no food, delays, missed connections and high prices.
I feel sorry for the displaced working people in the travel/tourism industry, who shoulder the burden and take the guff from unhappy customers while their corporate managments enrich themselves. But I also feel liberated by not having to fret about the discomfort and inconvenience of air travel today. Thank you, Sally.
I’ve been on a lot of driving trips from California to the Mid-South and back, starting with the great overland vacations with my travel-loving father when I was a boy living in Sacramento, Calif. Later came the cross-country commuting in a 1958 MGA and then a 1965 Mustang. Those long drives before the interstate highway system was complete came when I was a student at Ole Miss, ECJC and Mississippi State. I drove back and forth from campus to Sacramento during Christmas and summer vacations, with each trip taking about 40 hours of drive time. The drives halted in 1967, when I graduated from Mississippi State.
After a hiatus of 14 years, we pulled a pop-up to San Diego, Sacramento, Mt. Lassen and other points West on an extended camping vacation in the summer of 1981. The AC on our Ford Fairmont wagon wasn’t strong enough to handle the load over the hot, desert mountains. But we were younger then and managed OK in the heat, with the help of lots of ice water and an electric fan to move the hot air around the camper at night.
We’re softer now and demand more comfort. With my AARP and other discounts, we planned on staying in decent motels like the Comfort Inn and Holiday Inn Express chains, which provide free breakfast and other amenities at a modest price. We knew we’d have access to a laundry at Casey’s condo development so we packed lightly. I took a half-bag of golf clubs. We found room for a case of hard-to-find TAB soft drinks, plus some road snacks. But we still saved some trunk space for the inevitable souvenirs and other purchases we knew we would acquire over the next three weeks.
We were up by 5:30 a.m. but it still took two hours to eat, shower, make trip sandwiches (leftover tuna steaks and grilled chicken breasts) and load Sally. We already missed Dickens, our retired racing greyhound we had dropped off at “Kennel Camp” at the West Memphis dog track the previous afternoon. We know he will enjoy being with his canine buddies, be well treated and probably overfed.
We pulled out of Memphis on a beautiful, sunny Tuesday, with high temperatures expected to be about 90 degrees. We were driving on one of the longest-running construction projects in the United States, Interstate 40. We headed west to Little Rock and the connection with Interstate 30, westbound to Dallas. I-40 from the Memphis-Arkansas Bridge over the Mississippi River through West Memphis takes a terrible pounding from the thousands of heavy trucks that daily make this crossing over the Mississippi River. It is perhaps the busiest east-west route in the U.S. The fear of terrorist attacks taking out one or more of the four highway bridges spanning the river at Memphis has prompted much discussion about the need for a new, reinforced bridge.
The I-40 roadway from the river to the junction with northbound I-55 has been under constant repair and rebuilding for more than 20 years. There have been frequent bad wrecks on this stretch of road the last few weeks, claiming a dozen or more lives. The Arkansas Highway Patrol seems to be at a loss at how to slow down the sleep-starved truckers, who sometimes boom down the interstate with utter abandon and recklessness.
The drive from Memphis to Little Rock is a familiar one. We’ve been going through or around Little Rock on the way to Hot Springs to “take the waters” for more than a quarter of a century. I visited the gigantic Maybelline plant in North Little Rock on business several times a year during the mid and late 1980s. The cosmetic company was then a subsidiary of my employer, Schering-Plough. It was sold to an investment-banking group in 1990, taken public and bought by a French company, L’Oreal, nearly a decade later. The plant is still a landmark on the approach to Little Rock and nearby shortcut around the Arkansas capital to westbound I-30.
Passing by the Maybelline factory always rekindles in me some bittersweet memories of being part of a great company. Regrettably, as the world turned so did Schering-Plough and Maybelline. Until the early 1990s, Memphis had been global headquarters for Schering-Plough Consumer Operations, which included Maybelline among its stable of cosmetic companies. Corporate decisions were made in subsequent years that greatly diminished the size of both Schering-Plough and Maybelline operations in Memphis. Combined employment was gradually cut from about 2,500 in 1984 to 500 in 2002 as various parts of the once thriving business were relocated, sold or shut down. It was the story of corporate America in the 1990s, a sadly familiar story in many communities and families.
Three years ago, I-40 from Memphis to Little Rock was a mess much of the way due to badly needed repairs and repaving. It still is, despite completion of several stretches of roadway. It remains a puzzle and a disgrace how such a critical transportation artery got into such terrible condition. Fortunately, Interstate 30 just east of Little Rock is farther along on the re-building process. Still, traffic was slowed to 50 mph by the reduction of many miles of road to one lane in each direction. Consequently, the drive to Dallas was increased by about one hour, to seven.
The only thing pleasant about the drive – other than the fun anticipation of arriving at our destination and making several interesting stops along the way – was a steady view of wildflowers and thriving plants and trees on both sides of the highway. This has been a rainy spring and summer and the scenery are so green that it suggests Ireland. Memphis has gotten about one inch of rain more than normal. Combined with somewhat cooler temperatures than usual, the rain has come every few days so the grasses and shrubs are spring-luscious instead of their normal brown of heat-baked summer.
Our route - dropping down to Dallas on I-30 rather than driving straight through Oklahoma and the Texas panhandle on I-40 - was chosen for a couple of reasons. The aforementioned one had to do with the bridge out in Eastern Oklahoma. Just as important was Betty’s wish to visit one of her friends and former Sunday school classmates, who had moved from Memphis to a very nice nursing home just north of Dallas. It
|Betty & Lewis at Dallas Arboretum|
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We arrived about 3:30 p.m. and found our way to a Sleep Inn ($44 a night, courtesy of the AARP rate) in a corporate office area of Richardson. Due to our early arrival, Betty called Mary Florence and advanced her visit to Mary White to that afternoon from tomorrow morning. We soon repaired to the Gardens of Richardson and were impressed with the spaciousness of the retirement/nursing home development, the quality of the furnishings and the congeniality of the staff.
Betty had a nice visit while I stayed downstairs in a plush chair in the lobby to read more of Joe Stein’s excellent book about the presidency of Bill Clinton, “The Natural.” Betty took some photos of Mary, who looked very well. Mary seemed to be quite pleased to see Betty, who had brought her some photos she’d taken of Mary’s friends back at Evergreen. Afterward, Betty and I picked up some take-out salads and French-fries to go with our sandwiches carried from home. We ate in the motel room and retired early.
Knowing that the morning rush traffic in and around Dallas was horrendous, we slept in and took our time over a light, complimentary breakfast of cereal and Danish. We had decided to visit the Dallas Arboretum and Botanical Garden, which doesn’t open until 10 a.m. during the week. So we dawdled around as a torrent of commuters crawled by on the eight-lane road that runs by the Sleep Inn, headed for their jobs in Big D. Richardson is an affluent place and nearly all the cars and SUVs we saw were late model and expensive. The directions given us the previous day by a nursing home employee were excellent and we arrived at the Arboretum after an easy drive of 20-to-30 minutes.
A major building program is underway at already beautiful and splendid Arboretum and Gardens, which encompass 102 acres that once held the estates of two oil-rich, Dallas families. We were told the Arboretum employs 22 professional gardeners and is visited by more than 350,000 persons annually. The $8 adult admission was waived because of our membership in the Memphis Botanic Gardens, a reciprocal arrangement that also got us free admission into the Flagstaff Arboretum and Santa Barbara Botanical Garden later in the trip.
The Dallas gardens are larger than those in Memphis are and much more manicured, probably the result of private rather than municipal ownership. The gardens overlook a lake several
|Lewis at Arboretum's Frog Fountain|
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Our favorites were a spectacular row of demonstration/test beds with plantings rotated by season. Some are in full sun, some in partial sun and some in heavy shade. Some hibiscus produced huge, red blooms the size of plates. Other bright-colored flowers included roses, petunias and impatiens. There was also some nice plantings of not-so-familiar ground covers that were thriving in the deep shade of live oak trees.
Extra-lush gardens and flowering shrubs were in full bloom around the 21,000-square-foot, estate home of the founder, the late Everett DeGolyer. The petroleum geologist made a fortune and willed the estate and his library of 15,000 books to Southern Methodist University after the death of his wife (in 1972). SMU later sold it to the city of Dallas. The city in turn ceded operation to the Arboretum’s private foundation and extensive volunteer organization in 1982. The plantings were gorgeous and orderly, as only those beds tended by loving hands can be.
Unfortunately, the constraints of time and our desire to get out of Dallas before the afternoon traffic thickens at 2 p.m. meant that we didn’t have nearly enough time to see more than a sample of the gardens. Most of what we saw was from our private, two-tour tour on a tram driven by a retiree-volunteer, a talkative and entertaining chap with considerable knowledge about the Gardens and botany in general. Another negative was that another volunteer – an elderly “greeter” who evidently didn’t know his left from his right – gave us directions to I-30 that that sent us in the opposite direction. We drove east for 30 minutes and cleared the city limits before discovering the reality of wrong-way Corrigan’s guidance. So we lost another 30 minutes retracing our route before we got to and through downtown and onto I-30 headed west.
Dallas traffic is congested even early in the afternoon. Many new bridges, ramps and extra lanes have been completed in recent years. More are under construction now. But the growth of the city and its environs far outpaces highway construction. So traffic creeps through the routes crisscrossing the city like in Atlanta and L.A. But the city at least provides useful information to drivers with a network of electric signs alongside the roads. Dallas now has so many telephones that the area has run out of seven-digit numbers; local numbers now must be preceded with one of two local area codes.
I would have liked to admire the shining skyscrapers that decorate Big D and give it such a distinctive skyline. But the heavy traffic of the pre-rush period moved along at such speed and density of pack interval that it required two-hands on the wheel and full concentration. Amazingly, nature seemed to be at work preparing to prune the gene pool when a couple of young men driving high-powered cars weaved through the lanes at high speed. One nearly crashed when trying to slip into a tiny space between two cars at 90 mph.
Traffic started thinning out once we got 10-to-20 miles west of Fort Worth on I-30, which turns into I-20. We had driven this stretch of road three years ago, in the opposite direction. It was boring then and boring now. We passed through Sweetwater (pop. 11,000 and seat of Nolan County), which proclaims itself on billboards as home of the largest annual roundup of live rattlesnakes in the world. Near Sweetwater and atop a ridge to the South off I-20 were perhaps 100 gigantic wind turbines slowing spinning in the hot wind. We had not noticed the electricity-generating devices when we passed through here three years ago. Their presence – while quite modest when compared to the several thousand turbines outside Palm Springs, Calif. - suggests an expensive investment in harnessing the alternative power of the pervasive West Texas wind.
We got off I-20 west of Abilene to drive north on U.S. 84 to Lubbock, then up I-27 to Amarillo. Highway 84, like other lightly traveled roads we’ve driven on in Texas, is in excellent condition. This stretch was four-lane all the way and we mainly had it to ourselves. Such roads are a testament to the political power of the Lone Star State when it comes to generating and capturing federal highway funds to connect distant ranching communities. The genius of the state’s politicians in taking care of the driving needs of their constituents stands in stark contrast to the shoddy highways through Arkansas. Even with their favorite son in the White House, Arkansas voters have had to put up with some of the worst roads in the U.S. for several years. Bill Clinton, whose home state birthplace of Hope is announced on road signs, and the small congressional delegation didn’t seem to deliver much for the home folks even though the Interstate highways through Arkansas provide important transportation corridors for the nation’s goods.
Breaking up the monotony of the generally flattish land punctuated only by various concentrations of Mesquite and Palo Verde trees were the occasional, oil well pumpers that still are at work. They tirelessly suck up the remaining oil released by wells drilled years ago. Many of the nodding pumper heads – which resemble giant black grasshoppers – are silent and rusting away. Most of the Texas oil patch has been pumped nearly dry in this part of the state. But the skyrocketing price of petroleum products has again made it economical to extract lower quantities of oil that would stay in the ground if prices were cheap.
The smell of petroleum is pervasive in the air around Abilene (pop. 115,000) and the wide-open spaces to the north. We saw a few herds of beef cattle. But the only longhorns we noticed were several hundred miles to the east, near the Arkansas border. A single strand of electrified fence wire keeps the docile cattle in their place on most of the ranch land we saw around Abilene, long the source of beef and rodeo cowboys.
Lubbock (pop. 200,000) is mainly an agriculture-based town. It is surrounded by desolate farmland that is rich enough when irrigated to grow crops of cotton, wheat and other grains. Giant elevators stand like huge sentries and can be seen for miles across the flat countryside. We noticed virtually no flowers in front of the homes and ranch houses that could be seen from the highway, possibly because of the hot wind. Most homes are at least partially protected from the wind by plantings of trees, which also provide shade.
This section of West Texas is in the western-most part of the Central Time Zone so it stays light much later than it does in Memphis. There was still a lot of light at 9 p.m., reminding me of the British Isles.
We arrived in Amarillo (pop. 173,000) about 8 p.m. and checked into a Comfort Inn, where I negotiated a discounted rate of $44. A nice desk clerk matched the price charged the previous night at a sister property outside Dallas even though a Jehovah’s
|Lewis on ancient Mohave Desert lava flow|
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June 20, 2002, Thursday – Amarillo to Sedona, Arizona
The Comfort Inn’s free breakfast included fresh-cooked scrambled eggs and hot biscuits, the first such I’ve seen at the usual cold buffets. We were on the road at 8:30 a.m., an early start for us. Ten and one-half hours later, we finally arrived at Sedona, Ariz., after a long, tiring and creepy drive.
Just west of Amarillo, on Interstate 40, is one of the most recognized works of folk art in the United States, if not the Western Word. Called Cadillac Ranch, it is an arrangement of partly buried Cadillac cars. The about 10 Cadillacs are big models with the distinctive tail fins of the 1960s. They are in a row and buried nose-down, with a little over half the bodies jutting out of the ground at a 45-degree angle. The formation of the Cadillacs nose down in the flat land suggests a flock of pelicans diving into a calm sea after fish. To my later regret, in the interest of making time we didn’t stop to take close pictures and settled for a postcard.
The drive across the remaining half of the Texas panhandle was boring. It was just endless miles of flat farmland and pasture without features or other distinction.
Crossing into New Mexico, we stopped at an ersatz adobe building that houses the state’s Welcome Center on I-40. Three years ago, several, very large Native American women who were friendly and who seemed to enjoy joking around with visitors staffed the place. Their Anglo replacements of 2002 were younger and trimmer. They seemed to be harried and intent on pushing ad-laden vacation guides on everyone who entered the building. Maybe they are understaffed and have quotas to fill. One thing is for sure; whoever has charge of tourism in New Mexico isn’t paying much attention to the impression the state’s Welcome Centers and rest areas give tourists. Restrooms are deplorable.
It’s a shame because New Mexico offers some very fine motoring routes for tourists. It has 24 scenic byways, including six with national designations. They include the Turquoise Trail (route followed by gold and mine explorers); El Camino Real (the old Spanish royal road); Billy the Kid Byway (wilderness where the outlaw hid out), the Santa Fe Trail (the famous route west of the pioneers in covered wagons) and Historic Route 66 (the vaunted “Mother Road” of America in the 1930s).
I’m very much aware of the extreme stress many state budgets are facing because of the falloff in tax receipts due to the recessionary economy and plunge in capital gains from the stock market. Tennessee has been struggling for more than a year with projected imbalances measured in the hundreds of millions of dollars, a monumental revenue shortfall that was only temporarily averted with increases in sales taxes and various fees. I’m mindful that cheap politicians always suggest making high profile but stupid cuts in services that will dismay the public – like closing parks. Thus, the public distaste for ever-higher taxes is often beaten down so yet another tax increase is grudgingly accepted. The same politicians never put on the table cuts in their own pay, perks and bloated staffs. It’s disgusting that Members of Congress have managed to get automatic raises in their already high pay – now $160,000 a year without even having to vote on it.
We’ve been reading about the huge forest fires in Colorado and other parched areas of the West that have consumed tens of thousand acres of trees on public lands and forced the evacuation of several communities. New Mexico’s Philmont Scout Ranch, where our son participated in a weeklong wilderness hike through the high country more than a decade ago, has been closed due to out-of-control fires. Extreme drought conditions have prevailed for several years in much of the West. We saw many burned patches of yucca plants along the road through New Mexico and later Arizona and California. Some roads had been temporarily closed because of wildfires leaping over the highway.
Any thoughts we might have harbored to savor the sights of New Mexico were scrubbed because of the fire danger. We zipped by Tucumcari, where we had stopped for night three years ago, and around Albuquerque, home to an extensive collection of Georgia O’Keefe’s artwork. Nearly 40 years ago I used to drive through the length both towns on the old Route 66. The road is still remembered and promoted by a cottage industry of attractions that cater to the pilgrims who retrace its faded glory. There is a website that celebrates the road’s route through New Mexico at www.rt66nm.org. Tucumcari is a drag. But we’d like to spend some time in Albuquerque some day because it supposedly has a lot to offer tourists.
Just west of Gallup, N.M., we noticed a lot of haze in the atmosphere. Visibility in the dry, desert air usually is 10 or more miles, making for some fantastic views of distant mountains, buttes and striated rock formations. We first assumed the haze was the result of smoke from the Colorado fires drifting south.
We later learned that the smoke was coming from runaway fires in northeast Arizona. Winds of 30 mph and more drove the fires out of control and pushed the smoke north to I-40 and beyond. The visibility narrowed from miles to perhaps 200-to-300 yards. The yellow-brown smoke blotted out the sun. Most cars and trucks were lead-footing it through the smoke with headlights on. We were traveling at 80 mph and over and didn’t know whether to turn around or drive on. The smell of smoke was pervasive, getting into our clothes and hair. Our throats became dry and acrid-tasting, as though we’d been sitting downwind of a campfire. It was creepy and a little scary.
We drove through increasingly heavy smoke for about an hour, finally breaking through into clean air near Winslow, Ariz. We could see a mountainous tower of black smoke rising to the southeast, looking something like the enormous cloud of radioactive smoke that rose over Hiroshima at the close of World War II. The strong winds pushed the evil-looking smoke to the north and east.
We later learned that 7,000 people had been evacuated from their homes in Northern Arizona. Three towns had been emptied as firemen and volunteers fought the fire officials called “the Monster.” It was the biggest fire in the history of Arizona; the area was declared a disaster. There were many accounts of bravery and sacrifice as fire departments from through the Southwest dispatched equipment and trained firefighters to help the beleaguered Arizona communities threatened by the raging fire that could not be contained.
Hours later, we were detoured around the picturesque U.S. Highway 89 that connects Flagstaff to Sedona. Forestry personnel had closed hiking trails and greatly limited vehicular traffic on the well-traveled road through beautiful Oak Creek Canyon because of extreme fire risk. Consequently, our driving distance to Sedona from Flagstaff was roughly doubled since we couldn’t take the direct, scenic route. We had to take Interstate 19 south of I-40, as if going to Phoenix, and then loop back north to Sedona on an alternate route to the South. It took a long time after a very long day of tiring driving, 10 ½ hours to be exact. But at least Betty spotted four elk grazing in a meadow 100 or so yards from the highway. We read that the fire and lack of water had driven many deer and elk into inhabited areas.
A real jerk at the Comfort Inn in Sedona demanded an even higher rate than the one quoted me earlier in the day when I called from Amarillo. The morning desk clerk assured me I could get an even better rate as a walk-in after 7 p.m. Maybe in theory. But not with the desk clerk of Middle Eastern descent who was on duty this evening. The Arab’s take-it-or-leave-it attitude added insult to injury.
So, we took our business next door and negotiated a good rate at the nicer Quality Inn, whose desk manager was friendly and much more accommodating. When it turned out that our room’s air conditioner wasn’t working properly, we were upgraded at no charge to a very large, executive suite, complete with a porch with a view, a sitting area and a whirlpool bath. All this was for a rate of $59 a night, $20 below what the Arab demanded for a regular room on the second floor. It was clear that the Quality’s night manager, a woman named Sabrina who said she has been in the lodging business for six years, and desk clerk, a new employee named Russ, know how to make customers feel welcome. I wasn’t surprised the next morning when it looked like every parking space was filled, a sign of a sellout despite the fire and the slow summer season.
On the staff recommendation, we ate at the independently owned and operated restaurant on the inn’s leased, second floor. We sat on a deck and enjoyed a magnificent view of the red rock formations that make Sedona so distinctive. My grilled salmon and Betty’s beef enchilada were very good. The beauty of the colors and shadows formed on the nearby rocks by the setting sun were almost breathtaking.