After a wonderful Christmas holiday in New England, it was time to head back across country. It is always hard for me to say goodbye to so many friends there and return to the routine of another semester of teaching, but when I saw that a huge winter storm was barreling up the coast… not just ANY storm, mind you, but something called a “bomb cyclone”!
Reluctantly, I packed up the car and headed west to upstate New York and Lime Kiln Farm, where I spent the night visiting with my friends Brent and Alessandro who own the farm. Unfortunately while trying to back my 6 months old car into a parking area, I scraped the left rear panel against a stone wall, and the wall won that battle. I am not sure why my back-up camera, which I am still not sure I like, didn’t scream at me before I left a huge scratch on the car. Oh well, I guess this is just a battle scar for my trusty car… it’s not easy doing a cross country road trip unscathed!
Ah yes, I forgot to mention the temperature. It was a balmy 14 degrees, going down to – 3 by morning. It had been that way much of the time I was in New England. I love snow, but that kind of cold should only be reserved for places like Minnesota or Alaska. And the forecast showed that I would be dealing with these temperatures at least as far west as Colorado. Brrrr.
After a much-too-rushed eastbound trip, and feeling unusually tired and drained over the holidays, I was determined to take it more slowly on the way back to California. So my first day out, I planned to drive about 7.5 hours to Pittsburgh. I left Brent’s at 7:30 AM and it was already snowing… a gentle, beautiful snow nothing like the cyclone bomb that was bearing down on NYC only a couple hundred miles south and on its way to Boston later in the day. Still, the snow made for slow-going. I am very comfortable driving in snow, but I stuck to very small back roads for the first few hours simply to avoid people. Any time I got on a major highway, fools would speed at or past me at 20 MPH over the speed limit and jangling my nerves. So I stayed on my own, slow and steady wins the race.
I won the race, but I pulled into Pittsburgh 12 hours later. It had snowed the entire way and the temperature was about – 4 degrees. I discovered a local restaurant not far from my hotel, located on top of Mt. Washington, from which I had amazing views of the city that I would have enjoyed more had it not been so damned cold. The Shiloh Grill was a friendly place serving up comfort food that seemed perfect for such a cold night. I had amazing Polish pierogies as an appetizer… nothing short of amazing, followed by their signature mac and cheese and then waddled back to the car like a stuffed penguin.
The next morning I stopped in at Pamela’s, a small Pittsburgh chain that in my humble opinion serves the best pancakes in the USA. Thin and crepe-like, dinner plate sized with soft insides and crispy edges, these things never disappoint. And then it was back on the road in sub-zero weather, but at least the snow had stopped. I made it to the northeastern suburbs of Indianapolis before 6PM and checked in at a gorgeous Cambria Inn. It was not at all crowded, and the staff were so kind, setting me up in a top floor, corner suite where I’d be guaranteed peace and quiet. I spent well over an hour thawing out in their small but warm pool and perfectly heated hot tub. It felt so good to float and soak, listen to the very good music they were piping in, and have no screaming children doing cannonballs beside me in 3 feet of water, a staple of most of my nights at hotels.
I then walked across the street, taking my life in my hands in the frigid temperatures, and treated myself to a beautiful steak dinner at Aspen Creek Grille. I’ll tell you, I had such a nice, relaxed evening it made me want to assume a new identity, hide from my real like and just hang out in Noblesville, Indiana for an extended stay. Who’d have guessed?
My third day out was a rather long haul from Indianapolis to Kansas City and again, in my pursuit of taking things easy, I got a hotel in KC’s upscale Westport neighborhood, walking distance to one of my favorite dining spots, The Beer Kitchen. It was still chilly outside, but was actually above freezing with a bit of rain. My car’s wiper fluid finally thawed our and worked again, meaning I didn’t have to stop every so often to throw snow of the windshield to wipe it off from the grit and salt of the roads. I walked to the Beer Kitchen, but was seated near two guys who must have been sampling everything the place had to offer beer-wise. They were loud and strange and it was unnerving, so I actually got my seat changed and could enjoy my deviled eggs and amazing burger in peace.
From Kansas City I had a long day’s drive to Denver. In keeping with my “I am going to take things easier on this trip” resolution, I had reserved a downtown hotel with a pool and hot tub, and a late night massage at a spa within walking distance of the hotel. I was going to pamper myself. After a grueling drive, I checked in at the Hampton Inn to learn that their pool was under construction and was closed. As I reeled from this disappointing news, I got a text message from the masseur I was to see in two hours. He had taken ill and cancelled on me. I was not a happy camper, but there was nothing to do but have a light dinner at nearby Steuben’s Diner for some great green chili stew and biscuits,
I spent quite a bit of time in Denver the next day and really didn’t hit the road until afternoon. I could not seem to shake my tiredness and I found that I had developed an unquenchable thirst. I could not seem to get enough water, diet ginger ale and especially iced coffee. I attributed this to being dehydrated from staying in heated hotel rooms and a hot car all day, but something didn’t feel quite right. I had a beautiful drive south and west through the Rockies, mesmerized by the amazing mountains and cloud formations that this part of the country provides. It was after dark when I pulled into Pagosa Hot Springs, a spa town that features a beautiful collection of hot tubs heated to various temperatures all outside on the banks of the river that goes through the town. The lost massage and closed swimming pool faded from memory as I soaked in 97 degree water, massaged my shoulders under warm waterfalls, and watched the twinkling stars and the rushing river and let go of my stress. After that I continued driving another hour and spent the night in Durango.
Driving across Utah is one of my favorite things to do, and so the next day I slowly and reverently passed through the redrock country of southern Utah, through the bustling metropoli of Bluff and Mexican Hat. I stopped for awhile to soak in the stunning scenery of the Goosenecks where the San Juan River has carved its way through the surrounding desert to produce spectacular formations.
I pressed on into Arizona and the ever-mysterious Monument Valley, the radio tuned to AM 660 KTNN (which stands for The Navajo Nation) listening to a blend of country and native American music with a DJ speaking in the Navajo Language. It got dark just south of Page, Arizona, but I still had a couple of hours to go to reach my hotel in St. George, Utah. It began to rain very hard at that point, and I watched the thermometer drop ever closer to freezing, so that was a bit unnerving. I discovered an unlikely gourmet restaurant in Kanab, Utah called Sego where I had delicious soup, a beet salad, and a lemon and berry tart that would not have been out of place in the swankiest restaurants of New York or L.A.
My last day of the trip was a lot more grueling than I had anticipated. I left St. George first thing in the morning, expecting to be in San Francisco by 6 or 7 PM. I made a stop at my old standby, the Baguette Cafe in Las Vegas, where Olivier, a Frenchman devoted to high quality food, serves up outstanding soups, salads and French pastries. Feeling like this was my last meal of the trip, I had vegetable soup, a tuna sandwich on a baguette, orange cheesecake, and what has to be the finest iced mocha on this continent. I left Las Vegas and wandered through the Mojave Desert: Barstow, Mojave, Tehachapi, Bakersfield. This is not the most exciting drive and I felt so tired. I was still fighting my monster thirst, which meant that I was drinking like a fish and having to stop at rest areas, truck stops and even deserted exits of the freeway to go to the bathroom. This all ate into the time, and it was midnight, 16 hours after leaving St. George before I finally rolled into the parking lot of my apartment building.
This was the end of what must be my 46th or 47th cross country trip, but it was not the end of another journey that I already started without even realizing it. After being home for a few days, I landed in an emergency room in San Francisco and was diagnosed with diabetes. My blood sugar had skyrocketed, and according to tests taken by my doctors, it had been running high throughout much of the past two months, getting progressively worse with the stress of the trip, a lack of exercise, and my ridiculous over-indulging in so many high carb foods on the road and during the holidays. Suddenly all the tiredness, the insane thirst, and general malaise made sense. And so my friends, as one journey ends, another begins and now I am moving slowly toward trying to get my health back. I still have places to go, things to do, people to see and yes, I hope pancakes to eat. And I know the open road will be waiting for me again when I’m ready.