Westward

A few years back, back when we were living in Fort Wayne, Indiana, our friend Bill made a road trip in his old pickup truck, from Indiana to west coast and back. Bill's two sons lived in west coast cities (Seattle and Los Angeles) at the time. Bill made it to Seattle, then started missing his own home and hearth, decided to skip Los Angeles, and turned around.

Once back in town, he stopped by to see me before getting home. He looked tired: clearly driving across America is not a short trip by any measure. I made lunch for him.

Bill just wanted to get home and lie down on his own bed. He didn't really care for lunch, but that didn't matter. I enjoy force-feeding friends, especially when they come back from a cross-country trip.

I had wanted to go with Bill, but I had also weaseled out of this trip. I regretted not going, not least because Bill kept sending me pictures from his pit-stops and day hikes and camp sites and stories of Patel-run motels: South Dakota! Wyoming! Montana! Washington! Oregon! California! New Mexico! Texas! Places I have never seen, and unlikely to ever see unless I make an effort to go see them.

I can be a homebody, but I also get the itch to go out and about around the country. Two years later, when Bill decided to go on another trip, probably relenting to my strategically timed prodding, I did not think twice about going with him. I could not have.

On a fine May morning, we loaded up our things into his pickup truck – a newer one this time, because the older one had broken down during the previous trip – and started driving west to New Mexico. Preferring the back roads, we stayed off highways as much as we could, ate at local eateries as much as we could, and saw quite a bit of American countryside.

I remember this trip fondly.

• • •

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Figure 1: Ye good olde midwestern landscape.

Wednesday, May 4, 2016: from Fort Wayne, IN to Rushville, IL.

Familiar looking farm country and familiar sorry-looking rundown towns of the old midwest. Bill chuckled at the giant US flag fluttering in front of a Taco Bell, and the very red Coca-Cola delivery truck entering its parking lot. We have barely started, and we have already encountered peak America.

Stopped for lunch at a Fairbury, Illinois local establishment (McDonald’s Family Restaurant, not affiliated with the fast food giant). Drove further, found a motel in Rushville, Illinois (Green Gables, good reviews on travel websites), and stopped for the day. Ate dinner at a gas station's convenience store.

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Figure 2: Green Gables' garden gnome.

• • •

Thursday, May 5, 2016: from Rushville, IL, to Iola, KS, via MO.

We entered and left Missouri on this day. Breakfast at Renee's Place, Mt. Sterling, IL. Lunch at Jack and Virginia's Restaurant, Hermitage, MO. I did most of the driving. I had never imagined I would ever be driving a pickup truck across rural Missouri, but here I was, having the time of my life.

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Figure 3: Look ma, I drove a pickup truck across Missouri!

We saw some small towns, but mostly we saw farmland. Quincy, Palmyra, Monroe City, Shelbina, and Preston in Missouri. Weablou, El Dorado Springs, Nevada, Bronson, Moran, and Iola in Kansas. Stopped in Iola to look for a motel room.

The first motel we tried turned out to be a little weird. It was within town limits, and it seemed like some kind of renovation work was going on. No one at the front desk, and it looked like no one was staying there either, because there were no vehicles in the parking lot. A note at the front desk asked to pick up the phone and call a number, so I did that, and a woman answered at the other end. She asked us to wait for fifteen minutes.

We waited for about ten minutes, was spooked, left, and found an America's Best Value Inn which looked more promising.

There is a paved trail near the motel. Took an hour-long walk. Spring is all around: bird calls, bunnies, flowers, flower fragrances, that rich green springtime vegetation. Nice. Kansas is nice.

• • •

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Figure 4: Kansan cattle.

Friday, May 6, 2016: from Iola, KS, to Dayton, NM, via the Oklahoma panhandle.

Breakfast at an establishment named the Greenery, conveniently located right next to our motel. Kansans are serious about their meat lovers' breakfast: a considerable helping of bacon, sausage links, sausage patty, ham, and eggs was served, for a very reasonable $10.71.

I have decided that I would move to Kansas if the opportunity ever arises.

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Figure 5: Charting the route across Kansas.

US Route 54, US 160, K-80, K-51, and US 56 today. Eureka, Rosalia, El Dorado, Augusta, Wichita, Kingman, Meade, Hugoton, Rolla, Elkhart of Kansas; Keys and Boise City of Oklahoma; then Dayton, New Mexico. Driving through Wichita was a mistake, considering the city traffic. Soon we left Wichita behind, and entered the vast plains.

As we were going west, landscape has been becaming progressively flatter. Illinois and Missouri were flatter than Indiana. Kansas and Oklahoma panhandle has the flattest landscape I have ever seen. Kansas had good roads. Oklahoma had an awful stretch of roads.

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Figure 6: An avian cloud formation and more Kansan cattle.

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Figure 7: A farm co-op.

I saw my first tumbleweed in the Oklahoma. I think I saw my first dead armadillo in Missouri. There was plenty more of both to come.

The radio announcer was quite amused by the fact that Kansas has more cattle than humans. I thought this was an understatement: there indeed are a lot of cattle in Kansas. We saw more cattle than humans in the Kansan countryside.

(Turned out that nine US states has more cattle than humans – Kansas ranks sixth in this list.)

Lunch was at gas station café in Bucklin, KS. Dinner was a couple of boiled eggs from a convenience store in Dayton. That meat lovers' breakfast indeed went a long way.

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Figure 8: Dayton has some connections with dinosaurs.

• • •

Saturday, May 7, 2016: from Dayton, NM to Raton, NM.

Ate a leisurely breakfast at Rabbit Ear Cafe, drove for two hours, and then stopped at Sugarite Canyon State Park. The Canyon is tucked between flat-topped mesas at New Mexico's northern border with Colorado, at the border of Great Plains and Rocky Mountains. Sugarite used to be a busy coal mine town once upon a time, and some ruins of the old town are still around.

We paid for a campsite, and went exploring a couple of trails. A short drive took us about a mile into Colorado.

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Figure 9: Hiking in Sugarite Canyon.

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Figure 10: Climbing up Sugar Creek Mesa.

Climbed up Sugar Creek Mesa in the morning, and took in a very lovely view of the surroundings. Found what looked like bear footprints on the trail: a big set of footprints, closely followed by a small set. Perhaps a black bear mother and her cub?

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Figure 11: Those are some funny-looking footprints.

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Figure 12: Up the mesa.

Those footprints were a cause for concern, but appeal of the hilltop was stronger. I loved it so much that I went back there again in the evening to spend more time there. Climbed down reluctantly by sunset.

Bill was worried by the time I got back. It was still bright on the hilltop, so it had not occurred to me that it was getting dark down in the valley.

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Figure 13: This fallen tree too has some dinosaur connection.

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Figure 14: Looking east at sundown from the mesa.

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Figure 15: The flat hilltop in question, all mine this fine evening.

• • •

Sunday, May 8, 2016: from Sugar Canyon, NM to Farmington, NM.

Breakfast at El Matador Café, Raton. There's a deer in the parking lot across the street. More deer, wild turkeys, prairie dogs as we drove further west.

Names of the places are not familiarly midwestern anymore. Ciamron, Ute Park, Eagle Nest, Angel Fire, Ranchos de Taos, Rio Grande Gorge Bridge (claim to fame: second tallest bridge in the US), Santa Fe National Forest, Carson National Forest, Chama, Dulce, Bloomfield Jicarilla Apache Nation Reservation, and Bloomfield.

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Figure 16: Rio Grande Gorge Bridge, NM.

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Figure 17: A quirky drive through.

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Figure 18: Yonder are the mountains.

All kinds of weather and landscape today: sun, flat lands, rain, pine mountains, snow, and then flat lands and sun again.

By evening we found a room in an Econolodge in Farmington, NM. Farmington appeared prosperous compared to the rest of New Mexico we had seen this far.

A river (Animas) flows right next to our hotel. A boardwalk has been built by the riverside. Walked along the river, ate dinner, and slept.

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Figure 19: Yonder are the rain clouds.

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Figure 20: Into the storm.

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Figure 21: Soon we were in snowy mountain roads.

• • •

Monday, May 9, 2016: from Farmington, NM, to Santa Rosa, NM.

Arizona is an hour's drive west. Bill does not want to go any further west.

Mesa Verde National Park in Colorado is about an hour's drive north. Bill does not want to go north either.

Bill is obsessed with New Mexico.

We ate breakfast, and drove south on US Route 550 towards Cuba, NM. Made a detour into a small country road, and then a rough ride on very unpaved dirt road and dry river bed, towards Chaco Culture National Historical Park. Chaco Canyon contains remains of a 12th century pueblo, managed by National Parks Service.

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Figure 22: Chaco ruins.

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Figure 23: There's a Chaco-era sundial atop this mesa.

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Figure 24: Dirt road out of Chaco canyon.

We did not linger in Chaco Canyon. Got back on Route 550: Cuba, Bernalillo, some Albuquerque suburbs, interstate 25 towards Santa Fe, Gloneria, Rowe, Pajarita, San Jose; country road 3, then 41 E, through small farming communities: Ribera, Pueblo, Sena, Villanueva, Aurora.

My attempts to convince Bill that we should go further south and see the White Sands National Monument failed. Another NPS site was beyond what he could stand: Bill wasn't going to stand any more of "idiots and their RVs".

We stopped in Villanueva State Park, considered camping there, but did not. Took Interstate 40 (old route 66) towards Santa Rosa, and checked into a Super 8. Ate a dinner at the Sun and Sand restaurant next door.

(Super 8 has since became the theme of a running joke between us. This Super 8 room turned out to be the epitome of luxury in our trip. We liked our room so much that we would continue to seek out Super 8 motels whenever we are on the road, and found them to be consistently reliable.)

Saw quite a bit of New Mexico landscape today: ever-changing colors and shapes of mountains, San Pedro peaks, Santa Fe mountains, vast plains. Strange how tree-laden eastern mountains look tame and boring in comparison with the dramatically barren western mountains.

• • •

Tuesday, May 10, 2016: from Santa Rosa, NM, to Palo Duro Canyon, TX.

We're in Texas panhandle. Caught sight of the famous Cadillac Ranch along the interstate, but, I bet you know this by now: we are too cool to gawk at tourist traps.

Bill has some history with Amarillo: he came here first as a young air force trainee back in the days. He was in Palo Duro Canyon (also known as "the Grand Canyon of Texas") in his previous road trip too. The place was packed then, because it happened to be a long weekend.

This being a weekday, we managed to reserve a camping spot. We hiked a little bit. The landmark Lighthouse Trail is about five miles round-trip. We did not go that far. We are too cool for long hikes too.

There were some wild turkeys around. One of them came close to examine our site, and looked at us pleadingly. It looked like she was used to humans feeding her.

We met two girls. They go to college in North Carolina, and they were driving across the country, to California, to spend the summer with one of their families. They appeared happy and cheerful and excited in a way young people driving across the country on their summer vacation would appear.

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Figure 25: Palo Duro.

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Figure 26: Palo Duro.

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Figure 27: Palo Duro.

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Figure 28: Palo Duro.

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Figure 29: Palo Duro.

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Figure 30: Palo Duro.

• • •

Wednesday, May 11, 2016: from Palo Duro Canyon, TX, to Fayetteville, AR.

Left Palo Duro in the morning. Ate breakfast at a Waffle House in Amarillo. Crosssed Texas panhandle, Oklahoma, and reached Fayetteville, Arkansas. Heavy traffic in the interstate. We should have reconsidered getting on I-40 again.

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Figure 31: Gray County, Texas.

The landscape has been progressively turning to deeper shades of spring green again as we drive east. An explosion of wildflowers along the road in Oklahoma; Arkansas for some reason has decided to spend cash money to mow those damn wildflowers down.

At Fayetteville, we specifically looked for a Super 8, and found it. We indeed have become fans of the Super 8 motel chain. Fayetteville has a college town vibe, thanks to University of Arkansas, but not many students around at this time of the year.

• • •

Thursday, May 12, 2016: from Fayetteville, AR, to Peoria/Pekin, IL.

Slow-moving traffic on 49 North, due to an accident near Springdale. Tired of sitting in the traffic, gave up on eating local for breakfast and ate at a McDonalds. This was my first time in a McDonalds in a very long time – perhaps the first time in the US. It was a revelation of sorts that the McMuffin actually tasted quite nice.

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Figure 32: Description on the paddle: "Largest shit-stirrer in Chariton County."

Springdale, Bentonville (known for Walmart and Tyson Foods) in Arkansas today; and Joplin, Carthage, Jasper, Nevada, Sedalia, Marshal, Moberli, Monroe City, Palmyra in Missouri; and then Quincy, Mt Sterling, Beardstown, Astoria, and then Peoria in Illinois. Lunch at Sherri's Home Cookin, Brunswik, MO.

In Missouri, I spotted a strange-looking thing flying low across the horizon. Bill, being the old US Air Force hand he is, correctly recognized the flying thing as a B-2 Spirit stealth bomber.

I later looked up the B-2: 19 of the 20 active B-20s in service are based in Whiteman Air Force Base, Missouri. Each of them costs a few hundred million dollars to a little more than two billion dollars, depending on how you calculate.

America is dying small towns, and two billion dollars a pop stealth bombers.

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Figure 33: Schuyler County, Illinois.

540 miles of driving between the two of us this day. I suggested stopping at the old Green Gables Inn again, but Bill had grown fond of Super 8, even though it was going to be past our usual stopping time by the time we get to the one in Peoria. I could not object, because I too had grown quite fond of Super 8! Ate dinner at Avanti's Italian Restaurant that happened to be right next to the motel.

• • •

Friday, May 13, 2016: from Peoria, IL, to home.

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Figure 34: Watseka, Illinois.

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Figure 35: Watseka, Illinois.

Fort Wayne was six hours from Peoria. We drove home, with a breakfast stop and a refueling stop.

A very old car pulled into the parking lot as we stepped out of the breakfast place. Old cars would be "classic cars" in some jurisdictions, but this was just an old car. Its owners, a very senior couple, said they were on their way to meet their family in Georgia.

Bill and I exchanged looks. To us it looked like neither the car nor its owners were in the shape to make such a lengthy road trip. We wished them well, drove on, came across the same Taco Bell and its giant American flag again, and chuckled again.

We were home that afternoon.