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With the much anticipated month-long Christmas break fast approaching, I once again plotted an escape from the peril of a relaxing vacation in the near-perfect weather of Florida's gulf coast. Hoping not to be subjected to any of the cold weather that seems to run rampant in many parts of the world this time of year, I set my sights on the Caribbean. Jamaica, the Dominican Republic, and other paradisiacal isles all provided affordable adventure travel within a few hours flight time; however, each of these exotic destinations also required a passport, and since Andie had still failed to procure hers, my car would once again be subjected to an arduous journey to the far end of the continent.
The goal was to make it to the west coast and back in 12 days time - departing shortly after all the important presents had been unwrapped and returning just in time for the first class of the spring semester. This epic journey would take in the sights of six states and put another seven-thousand miles on my trusty, though rapidly deteriorating Corolla.
An abrupt outbreak of a relative-induced flu took Eric, the third member of our team, off the roster; we briefly mourned the loss, then proceeded to fill his spot in the backseat with bikes, climbing gear and leftovers from our respective families' holiday feasts. We left early on the morning of the 27th and drove for nine straight hours before making our first exciting stop in Slidell, LA.
We had heard from the state tourist office that a bridge 10 miles into the 27-mile rail-trail had been destroyed and our ride would therefore be limited to a fairly brief jaunt through the bayou. In the end, however, our ride was cut short not by the prospects of fording a substantial river with road bikes, but by the more imminent threat of getting frostbite whilst riding at around 18mph on a canopied trail in sub-40 degree weather. So following a half-hour ride and an hour-long fight to jam our bikes back into the trunk, we set out for the Texas border.
Interstate 10 spends over one-third of its 2500 mile length in the lackluster desert landscape of the lone star state, and this implies that you can spend the better part of a day driving non-stop towards El Paso without ever seeing the first glimpse of scenery. We opted to take three days and stop in the hilly oasis of Austin following our first night in an RV park east of Houston.
Having lived in Austin for several months not too long ago, I expected to have some recollection of how to get around the place. After circling downtown for the third or fourth time, I managed to home in on parking for the famed Town Lake Trail. Having never ridden a bike during my stay here, I imagined this trail to be paved; when we found that it was not, we set out for a haphazard exploration of downtown and the university. As bicycle-friendly as one might assume Austin to be, it really has no provisions for the two-wheeled among us - even the UT campus managed to limit access to much of its expanse by installing lofty hills only accessible by impassible staircases. We went over a few residential mountains, carried our bikes over the stepping stones of the Shoal Creek Trail, and returned to our car before the 2-hour limit expired.
We found our way to the greenbelt to try our hand at sport climbing. I had taken a class in this several years before and believed that I knew something about it, but as I held the tangled rope and quick-draws in my hands, I realized I lacked even the slightest inkling of how these devices were supposed to guide me to the top of the jagged rock wall without breaking my neck, impaling me, or otherwise ruining a perfectly good day.
One of the regulars at the wall decided to help us learn to lead climb and instantly regretted it. Andie fed out the rope as I took the first few precarious steps to where I could attach the rope to the first clip. Upon reaching the top, I discovered I had dropped the final quickdraw that would give me some measure of security while I untied the rope from my harness and fed it through the chains; my improvised solution was to climb up on the ledge, and while kicking all manner of rocks down on my supporters 50 feet below, untied and retied myself upon the precarious perch.
Foregoing the opportunity to eat at one of Austin's legendary, elvis-themed establishments, we set off late-afternoon to continue our drive west. We imagined that, like the previous night, a campground would magically present itself at precisely the right time, but when midnight rolled around, it had been a good hundred miles since we had last spotted a viable campsite and we were forced to pull into a rest area and sleep amongst lines of trucks in the comfort of the exceedingly spacious Corolla.
In the morning, we turned south for Big Bend National Park; there we found something we never expected to come across just a few miles from our nation's southern border - snow - and lots of it. As we set out on the Lost Mine Trail, we carefully stepped through ice-covered cacti and sentry snowmen; as we brushed against overhanging branches, collected piles of the mysterious white stuff, waiting in ambush, dropped down our backs. The barren desert had been transformed overnight into a winter wonderland and we strode along the icy paths, singing Christmas tunes, catching falling flakes on our tongues and dropping to make snow angels in the pristine drifts.
We soon returned to a more typical climate in the lower elevations of the park; we dropped by an old homestead and the grand Santa Elena Canyon, where we might have paddled if only we had had money, boats and/or time. We contemplated leaving by an unpaved road but after observing several "high clearance" signs, opted to exit the park by the same route we had entered. We slept at another random rest area outside of El Paso and were clear of the seemingly endless state by the morning of the 30th.
Going into this trip, which would demand an average daily drive of around 600 miles, I anticipated that we would cover a great deal of distance in the middle of the night. This would be accomplished through the obvious approach of alternating sleeping and driving between the two of us. The first stage of this plan went flawlessly - Andie slept for several hours in the afternoon and evening while I drove; however, as midnight rolled around and I began to feel the effects of an eighteen hour day, Andie seemed somewhat less than enthusiastic to awake from her nap and take the wheel. As a result, the night usually ended with me downing a cappuccino and pushing on until we reached the first place where we felt reasonably sure we could rest a few hours without being arrested or shot.
As we passed through El Paso and neared hour 30 of our drive, our supply of in-car amusements began to wane. Travel Scrabble proved very hard to play while one of us was driving, Melville's meticulous account of the whaling trade had begun to lose its initial thrill, and our mastery of the Mandarin language had progressed little since we first cracked open the 8-hour set. On a whim, we had picked up a heavily discounted gingerbread house kit at an Alabamian Walmart and Andie resolved to carry out the construction in the passenger seat. Having polished off the morning's quart of ice cream and having long since abandoned any attempts to control the cleanliness or insect infestations of my corolla, I decided to allow this. It went well at first - the four walls were bound to each other by super-sticky frosting and gumdrops were liberally applied, but with the addition of the roof, the whole thing abruptly collapsed into a pile of delicious gooeyness. This worked out to my favor because it brought about a speedy end to the "no eating" rule.
In Tucson we stopped by the city's foremost Ethiopian restaurant. It is strange to think eating with my hands was once a novelty - earlier that morning we had used our fingers in lieu of a knife to make PB&Js. Just east of town was the impressive Saguaro National Park. I had not expected much from a monument centered on a single desert-based plant, but the suburban park offered a downright exceptional bike trail which provided a veritable rollercoaster ride through the mountains on the town's periphery. At one particular stop along the route, we carried our bikes around enormous boulders in search of the elusive javelina, an even-toed ungulate which resembles a feral pig.
We approached the California border via the town of Yuma around 10 that evening. A bit tired and uncertain of where the network of highways was taking me, I wavered between lanes and took exits at random; shortly after executing a u-turn on a deserted road leading to a juice factory, I was pulled over by one of Arizona's finest. He had come to the conclusion that I was driving under the influence and proceeded to shine his flashlight in our eyes, hit us with a barrage of loaded questions, and check our coffee cups for booze. He stopped short of giving a breathalyzer, making me recite the alphabet, or issuing a citation, so I cautiously pulled away and, doing my best impersonation of a semi-capable driver, carried out a masterful escape into California.
I have not driven many stretches of highway stranger than that passing through Cali's southern desert. We searched desperately for any rest area, state park, or RV lot, but exit after exit turned up nothing but landfills and sketchy dirt roads into Mexico. After about 20 miles, we began to see all manner of lights shooting in random angles through the sky. What at first appeared to be wayward UFOs haphazardly spinning over the empty desert, turned out to be dozens of dune buggies racing through towering piles of sand. Upon spotting hundreds of RVs and multiple carnival games, we pulled off to see if we could secure a camping spot; however we were soon informed that a permit was required and promptly did a u-turn to get back on I-8. Immediately after executing this maneuver, for the second time in two hours, we were pulled over by the highway patrol.
Somewhat flustered by my latest brush with the law, I pulled on to the wrong onramp and began heading back east. Rather than venture deeper into the desert, we decided to return to the familiar and stopped at a massive RV park along the Arizona border. Pulling up to the office, we found a security guard in a golf cart and questioned him regarding a campsite; he only mumbled incoherently in reply - though his eyes appeared to be open, it seemed he was sleeping - he also seemed to be missing his arms.
We raced back to our car and made a speedy return to the town of Yuma; heeding the second officer's warnings about immigrants assaulting us while we slept in our car, we stayed at a cheap motel which provided free high-speed internet courtesy of the Waffle House next door.
The next morning we drove back towards Calexico. The expanse of desert was no less creepy in the daylight - at one exit, we came across a mysterious grouping of pyramids, accompanied by a spiral staircase that ascended into the sky, providing access to nothing in particular.
The town of Calexico was in desperate need of English subtitles, but we did manage to find a flea market of some cultural interest. The parking for the pedestrian crossing into Mexicali seemed like entirely too sketchy of a place to leave most of our worldly possessions, so we postponed our international escapades to a later date (we later learned that all ports besides Tijuana require a passport to return to the US - this could have made for a very long walk back to our car).
A few hundred miles further, the picturesque metropolis of San Diego unfolded before us. We got off at the UCSD exit in search of cheap food and soon found a packed Vietnamese café serving up pho and com dia better than any found in Saigon or Hanoi. We went to Mass at a heavily ornamented church - people here seem a good deal more relaxed than those in San Jose, and the diocese lacked any of the precepts so common in the northern churches which forbid holding or shaking hands or making any sort of gesture that could be construed as good will towards your neighbor.
Another couple miles down the highway and we ran straight into the Pacific Ocean. The sands facing the terminus of I-8 belong to a dog beach and so we forewent the usual custom of diving in, and were instead satisfied to walk out on the extensive Ocean Beach pier. Waves, higher than any we'd ever seen lapping against our eastern shores, carried wetsuit-clad surfers toward a fearful array of jagged rocks. We walked down the streets of the small seaside suburb, passing countless sports bars from which cheers erupted in response to some three or four concurrent bowl games; we encountered more than a few dog washing shops but found none that would agree to clean our greasy coats (actually we had showered that morning and were a good 4 days away from inquiring at canine salons).
A short drive up the coast brought us to the famed La Jolla Sea Caves. Here, hundreds of tourists and locals scurried along the epic cliffs and a few jumped down to explore the caves which were, for a time, accessible by foot. At the "children's pool", dozens of fat, sluggish seals basked in the midday sun - having devoured the last of the kids long ago, the seals now returned to the pool each winter to be ogled by amused passers-by.
With only a rough map and dim recollection of how we had arrived at this spot, we chose roads purely based on their angle of incline; we sped along a scenic drive offering a thousand feet of elevation gain and excellent viewpoints of the city and beaches. In an hour's time, we had stumbled upon I-5 and took it into downtown.
We parked around 6PM and resolved to spend the remaining time til midnight exploring the city's exceptionally clean and pleasant downtown. We ate at a Thai restaurant and stopped by a neighborhood hostel to pick up a guidebook with better maps. The local Marriot was hosting a 007 party complete with fake gambling and shadow screen dancers; we pretended to be guests and picked up a handful of chips to try our luck; we promptly lost everything in a few unlucky blackjack hands and were cast out on the street. The Hyatt next door had a less impressive New Years bash which still offered live music and a growing crowd of revelers dressed quite a bit better than us.
After covering the gas light district and embarcadero, and putting in more miles than my legs were equipped to handle at that time of night, I looked at my watch to find that it was still only a half past eight. We soon reluctantly concluded that there was no way we were going to survive for another three hours and resolved to celebrate along with our native time zone before calling it a night. On the way back to the car, Andie saw a shady character racing down an alley carrying a gun - or it might have been a hat, she wasn't entirely certain on that point.
We picked a random campsite off the list the tourist office had given us and started driving; this particular site turned out to be a good thirty miles north in the town of Escondido. When we reached the distant suburb with no map to guide us, we soon found that not one of the gas station attendants was actually from the area; we were eventually directed to a bar where the same locals had reportedly been drinking for the past twenty years.
After attempting to direct us herself, the bartender forwarded our request to a particularly hammered guy on a laptop in the corner. He simultaneously logged on to Mapquest and played air guitar to the tune of a Zeppelin song playing in the background. Despite the fact that he spelled both the park and his town's name incorrectly, the correct directions were returned and we made it to Lake Dixon minutes before the last ranger turned in for the night.
The following morning saw us progressing down the coast from Oceanside to Del Mar on our way back to the city. Along this route, we passed hundreds of cyclists, runners and rollerbladers, and hopped out a few times ourselves to scamper along the high, crumbling cliffs. Since UF had thwarted her previous attempts, Andie had us scour the town for unencrypted wireless so she could submit her application, but we soon found the thousands of high-speed customers to be surprisingly security conscience and had to put it off til a later date. We went to a Mexican meat shop and ordered tacos al pastor while we soaked up the atmosphere and stench of about thirty distinct kinds of unrefrigerated meat.
Hailed as the "birthplace of California," Old Town San Diego seemed worthy of a stop. There was little to get all that excited about, so we made a brief stop at an old-fashioned soap store where Andie sampled some of the exotic varieties (we had taken showers a few hours before, but old habits die hard), then we headed out across the Coronado bridge. Coronado Island was reportedly home to a lengthy, easy-to-follow bike trail, but after progressing through the usual Herculean task of pulling the bikes out of the trunk, we found no immediate signs. After some searching we identified a water-side path which was currently in use by approximately half the town's population; we followed this for some distance before it abruptly ended with no indication of where to go next. Once we had done a satisfactory amount of aimless riding, we returned to the car and headed for the south.
San Ysidro, immediately adjacent to Tijuana is remarkably clean, orderly and amazingly monolingual, with none of the trimmings of a typical border town. In the dwindling hours of daylight, we parked here, walked through the turnstile and across the bridge into Mexico. Since it was the first of the year, everything was closed and the touts had nowhere to direct us but the few 24-hour pharmacies. Our first impression of Tijuana was that it was not a particularly safe place to be after dark (or any time), so after getting a quick glimpse of the cityscape, we made a run for the border and arrived at customs as the last of the sun's rays sunk below the horizon. We spent a total of half an hour and ventured nearly half a mile into our nation's southern neighbor; during our stay, we bought nothing, ate nothing and spoke zero words of Spanish, but with a 15-minute drive and $4 parking fee, we had successfully doubled Andie's list of international ventures.
Heading towards Joshua Tree, we gained a few thousand feet in elevation and came upon wind gusts that threatened to tear us off the highway. We "camped" in the parking lot of a campground near the entrance of the park. The next day, we braved the winds to scurry around on rock piles and hike up to an old mine featuring a well-preserved mill, an open pit and scattered mining implements. We drove towards Vegas and skirted the eastern edge of town to arrive at the brand new and completely empty Lake Mead Parkway. We pulled into the first campground along the stretch, narrowly missing a big horn sheep - he being the one other patron of the road that night.
We awoke to abnormally warm temperatures and reluctantly headed north into Arizona. Catching sight of a library in a small desert town, Andie made me stop and sit in the parking lot for an hour (which I did happily without the slightest hint of impatience or frustration) so she could finally submit her now overdue application for graduate studies at UF. We reached Zion two hours before dark and raced through the canyon in a valiant effort to see the entire western side of the park before nightfall. Most of the trails were covered in ice so we remained in our car for the better part of the canyon, then returned to the park's one open camping loop.
The visitor's center had predicted a nighttime low of 37, so we set up our tent in anticipation of a fairly comfortable sleep. However, by early morning the mercury had dropped to around 20 and a thin layer of ice had formed on the tent and car. Unlike the ground I'd grown accustomed to camping on in the summer, this ground was ice-cold, and no amount of laying on it was going to change that; so after a prolonged, semi-conscious fight over our one thermarest, I left to go sleep in the car.
Following a nearly successful effort to make oatmeal with frozen water, we headed east and donned our heaviest winter coats to do the memorable Canyon Overlook Trail. Having jogged over the icy cliffs in record time, we drove several hours over high, scenic roads to arrive at Bryce Canyon. Here we drove to each viewpoint and jumped out of our car just long enough to snap a few pictures before diving back into the comfort of the heated cab.
By the time we exited the park, we were more or less done with scenery and were looking for a straight shot south. Unfortunately, no such road existed and in the last minutes of daylight, we drove through Capitol Reef National Park then proceeded to Canyonlands to view the epic vistas in the moonlight.
It was in Hanksville that we saw our first tumbleweed of the trip; this quintessential symbol of the west lent validity to our trip, but it also signaled the beginnings of a powerful dust storm that nearly persuaded us to turn back and seek out some sort of sanctuary in the tiny desert outpost.
We persevered through the storm and drove on to Farmington where we found a number of fairly overpriced hotels (at least compared to the prices in my 1999 Lonely Planet). We awoke the next morning to a snowstorm; initially, we drove east on a scenic road towards Taos, but soon discovered that we were the only car on the road, the other traffic being comprised entirely of snowplows and other service vehicles. We did a u-ey, headed back to Farmington, and took a road dead south to I-40.
The remaining days were uneventful as we returned to Gainesville via a cushy series of interstates and stopped only to sample the excellent cuisine of the exotic Subways and Taco Bells along the route. We arrived in Gainesville early Sunday morning, relieved to have survived our first real encounter with snow, the mysterious bird flu that hit Austin a few days after we left, the tourist-decapitating cartels of Tijuana, and any number of other perils we encountered along the way. The next day, our Gators trounced the heavily favored Buckeyes to win the National Championship, University Ave. erupted in raucous, firework-launching, tree-felling celebration, and all was well with the world.
One of the highlights of the first couple days of the trip - a rest area
Desert swamp in Big Bend
Snow in Texas??
Catching snowflakes on my tongue
"Sure, we can build a gingerbread house while driving, it'll be fun!"
Resorting to plan B after premature collapse
Biking in Saguaro
Seagull in flight
La Jolla cliffs
And thus said the angel: "It shalt be called Cannondale, and if thou ridest it, thou shalt go fast"
Andie mercilessly trampled by Rainbow Elephant Man
Oddest plant ever
Basking in the moonlight
She didn't really build this
Andie being cold
Three hours later, she finds herself right back where she started
In the desert, you take what you can get
A precarious perch in Joshua Tree
Andie making off with priceless artifacts
Tent camping loses its appeal around 20 degrees Fahrenheit
Andie riding her noble steed through the canyon
Andie digging up the corolla
Andie and the hoodoos
If you're ever in Albuquerque and happen to arrive at a Chinese buffet with this panda out front, RUN!!
Another satisfied ebayer!