The road, itself, is a place…
As an author and travel writer with a syndicated radio show I admit I am given to hyperbole and delusions of grandeur with an overly-imaginative mind Don Quixote would be proud of. My latest “windmill tilt” was the idea of driving across America and back – from sea to shining sea. I committed to “see the USA in a Chevrolet” (an Equinox, to be specific). Fittingly, I felt, I began the journey on Florida’s Historic Coast departing from “America’s First City” St. Augustine, Florida at mile-marker zero of the Old Spanish Trail.
Feeling like a modern-day Ponce de Leon, I took to the road like a sea captain and I imagined myself a steady hand that would get me through some of the long stretches of road connecting memorable places along Americas Interstate 10 from the Atlantic to the Pacific and then back up through the Rockies and America’s heartland on Interstate 70 going from the Pacific to the Great Lakes.
I imagined there would be stretches of danger and periods of fatigue through a windshield of scenic views and also endlessly boring flatlands. The drive would require patience and a oneness with the road that can only come from hours and hours of steering a vehicle up and down through mountain switchbacks and dead straightaways with speed limits ranging up to 80 miles-per-hour and down.
I pictured myself to be Tom Hanks at the helm of an ocean going freighter in the film “Captain Phillips” or steering a battleship safely across the sea in Greyhound. My delusions weren’t delirious when I did come across a series of signs in Utah warning about the dangers of drowsy driving.
Rolling Into Town
I found there is a different sensation that comes from driving up to a town as opposed to flying in. The anticipation of approaching a major destination by car, from the first time you see an indicating road sign and then first catch a glimpse of the skyline, builds.
There seemed to be a payoff for the mileage that I put in through barren land or plain roadway when a city like New Orleans unfolded in front of me or when I descended down into San Diego and caught my first glimpse of the ocean. I did feel a bit like a conquering explorer even though millions of people have made the same passage before me and hundreds of thousands do every day on their local commutes. Nevertheless, for me it was a first and it always felt that way.
Leaving Las Vegas
Conversely after one or two or three nights in any given town when it came time to leave I was often overcome with a measure of sadness and nostalgia – even after a short visit. I tend to fall in love with every place I go – at least a little bit. I always wonder if I will ever see it again but I do know one thing: I will never see it again with the same eyes because the first time is always magical.
The first time was full of surprises. Upon departure I would usually take one last lap down Bourbon Street or Rodeo Drive or one last beach walk or maybe even take in Mass at the local church before I left town just to pay respects and say “thanks.”
It wasn’t that I had a woman in every town but I did make new friends everywhere – friends that I may or may never see again but I will certainly try to keep in touch with.
Soundtrack While Trekking
Day after day of packing up, filling up, and moving on was rewarded by surprises along the way – many of them iconic and musical in nature.
Picture this, for instance: on my first morning in New Orleans, I left The Higgins Hotel early to get a seat under the awning at the traditional Café Du Monde and sat down to eat a white sugar-powdered beignet. I unadvisedly wore a black shirt, so as I sat there dusting off the powder between sips of café au lait, I hadn’t looked up to notice a busker was about to play saxophone on the sidewalk. When he warbled out the song “Do You Know What it Means to Miss New Orleans” the song instantly placed me in the “Big Easy” and it felt like real life had a soundtrack – even for just a moment. It was a magnificent, if coincidental, welcome to New Orleans where I was eating one of its iconic dishes and hearing perhaps the town’s most definitive song.
On my last night on Bourbon Street in New Orleans, when the blues band played a closing rendition of “When The Saints Go Marching In” I had the same feeling. One couldn’t request that song because it wouldn’t have the same impact as when you hear it organically in all its authenticity.
Out in the West Texas Town of El Paso
Similar to the musical soundtrack in New Orleans, when I was in El Paso, Texas, I sought out Rosa’s Cantina, the bar featured in the lyrics to the Marty Robbins hit song ‘El Paso:’
“Nighttime would find me in Rosa’s Cantina…Here I am on the hill overlooking El Paso. I can see Rosa’s Cantina below…”
It was cool enough that there actually is a Rosa’s Cantina where the gun fight in the song took place, but when I went inside for some tacos and a Lonestar beer and the karaoke deejay set up for the evening the very first song he played was El Paso I once again I heard the music singing about roses Cantina while I sat right at the bar in that very place.
Don’t Mess With Texas
Another “sense of place” moment occurred under the stars at the Houston Astros baseball game when, during the seventh-inning stretch, the crowd sang “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” as fans in most major league stadiums across America do. But the gathered then greatly sang with gusto when they followed it up with a rousing rendition of “Deep in the Heart of Texas.”
My Texas timing was very good in terms of topical and local issues – even if by accident. I was staying at the Houstonian Hotel on the anniversary date of the famous NASA astronaut statement “Houston we have a problem;” and in El Paso I’d found myself next to the Mexican border which had been featured in the news of late concerning the immigration situation.
In California I positioned myself in the downtown Los Angeles Union Train Station on the night the Academy Awards show was being staged for the first time ever in the train station. Days later my lodging, the glamorous Crawford Hotel, was actually inside downtown Denver’s Union Train Station on the weekend Denver was abuzz that superstar quarterback Aaron Rogers might pack up and leave the Packers to join the Broncos.
In terms of more show business, I found myself watching and listening to the sound check of the Trevor Hall band – one of the season’s first concerts at Denver’s time-honored, scenic Red Rocks Amphitheater under a beautiful blue sky.
The Road Less Traveled
Some embrace philosophical phrases such as “getting there is half the fun,” and “it’s not the destination but the journey.” To some degree those are correct because it’s interesting to see what lies between destinations like San Antonio and El Paso (which turned out to be a virtual ocean of empty Texas landscape.) While at The Houstonian Hotel I was given the best advice of the trip by Jean Becker, a local who was Chief of Staff to former President George Herbert Walker Bush and has just penned a book about her experiences titled “The Man I Knew – The Story of George H.W. Bush’s Post-Presidency.”
“If you’re driving to El Paso do not leave San Antonio with anything less than a full tank of gas. And every time you should happen to come across a gas station, which won’t be often, stop and fill up, no matter how much is in your tank at the time,” she warned.
I found, remarkably, in the middle of nowhere miles from anywhere with no civilization in sight, a gas station made out of containers that was a welcome sight in mid-afternoon. I have to say it was also the cleanest gas station I’ve ever been in. The filthiest one I found along the way was in Texas just after I’d crossed over the Louisiana border. And some of those super high, steep, narrow bridges I’d encountered in east Texas on the drive from New Orleans were quite the thrill!
Alex-Brennan Martin, who owns the famed Brennan’s Restaurant in Houston, makes the five-hour drive to New Orleans frequently to visit his families’ other iconic restaurant – Commander’s Palace. “Sometimes in winter, when things happen to get icy, you can’t drive over those bridges. They have to close them,” he told me over a bowl of turtle soup.
There was always a little bit of a rush when I would come across the border between states and see how each state chose to welcome visitors. There is typically a roadside sign of different colors and sizes with varied messages or slogans. State borders may not mean too much in the USA but some of the states are as diverse as European countries in terms of culture, accents, cuisine and certainly terrain.
For instance at Death Valley Road between Los Angeles and Las Vegas gas cost over five dollars a gallon and a small Dairy Queen blizzard was $7.80. Interstate 10 between Phoenix and San Diego, just inside California, included a random checkpoint – presumably to look for illegals.
But the road itself is a place and it certainly has its curiosities. The bright, bizarre, reflective solar farm – the Ivanpah Solar Power Facility – appears like a planetary base as you emerge from the mountains heading east into Las Vegas followed by the peculiar casino signs in Primm such as “Terribles” and “Buffalo Bills” make for a light show day or night. Near Tucson I spotted a commercial aircraft parking area with hundreds of jumbo jets idly moored.
Some of the automobile rest stops and gas stations are colorful like tourist destinations in their own right and others are just little shacks with amazingly scenic panoramic views – the drive from Scottsdale and San Diego featured both. And by the way what is a date shake?
I strongly advise taking advantage of the scenic turn offs such as Spotted Wolf Canyon west of Grand Junction on Interstate 70, which in itself is like driving through a museum of Ansel Adams paintings. It’s a truly isolated road cut through canyons and across vast rocky dance floors.
My bottom line: Keep It Rolling!
Here are the hotels I recommend along the way:
St. Augustine – Marriott Sawgrass
Jacksonville – Homewood Suites by Hilton
Biloxi – Hotel Legends
New Orleans – The Higgins Hotel
Houston – The Houstonian Hotel
San Antonio – Hotel Valencia
El Paso – Hotel Paso del Norte
Scottsdale – Westin Kierland Resort
San Diego – Fairmont Grand Del Mar
Los Angeles – The Beverly Hilton Hotel
Las Vegas – The Venetian Resort
Grand Junction – The Hotel Maverick
Denver – The Crawford Hotel at Union Station
Columbia, Missouri – The Drury Inn and Suites
Chicago – Sophy Hyde Park
Battle Creek – Firekeepers Hotel and Casino
Traverse City – Grand Traverse Resort and Spa
Midland – The H Hotel
Mackinac Island – Mission Point Resort