For the 10 or 15 years I’ve driven cross country from San Francisco to New England (making many stops along the way) every summer and every Christmas. If you’ve read some of my other road trip blog posts, you already know that these trips are probably some of the happiest times I’ve ever experienced…
The adventure of making an 8,000 mile road trip, singing along with my favorite music until I’m hoarse, watching countless stunning landscapes whiz past me, stopping at many small, local restaurants that few travelers would ever even notice, and having time to be alone with my thoughts for a week or two is almost like therapy for me, especially after a stressful semester of teaching. I’ve often joked that when I die, I’d like to be buried in my car, propped up, hands on the wheel… and I’m only half-kidding!
This year’s winter trip was somewhat special for me. Knowing that I would be leaving my university position and moving out of California this summer, this would likely be my final round-trip journey across the country. Even though there was some sadness in that realization, as soon as final grades were posted, I gleefully packed up and hit the open road.
The first day out I made good time on I-80, traveling 750 miles to Salt Lake City with only a couple of gas and food stops in one of Nevada’s widely-spaced cities: Reno, Winnemucca, Elko, and those thriving metropolitan areas of Battle Mountain and Wendover. To my dismay there was no snow in the forecast all the way across the country, but at least the mountains of Nevada and Utah had enough snow on them to look like oddly shaped powdered sugar donuts.
I had searched for a new and noteworthy breakfast stop on the second day out and decided to try a highly rated place called Ruth’s Diner in Emigration Canyon, halfway between Salt Lake and Park City. There was lots of snow on the ground up here, and this place looked like an annex of Santa’s workshop. As soon as I walked through the door, I knew I was in the right place. Partly because I knew the next several hundred miles would not present many promising dining options, but mostly because I have zero self-control when it comes to breakfast, I had a Mexican frittata with beans and rice, served with one of Ruth’s famous complimentary “mile high biscuits” and homemade jam, and a pancake on the side. Can you spell “Carbo-loading”? It was all fantastic, as was the coffee, and I left feeling happy, but bloated.
I usually head east through Denver but decided to veer north this time and see some countryside that I haven’t been to in many years, so I headed northeast and crossed into Wyoming. I exited I-80 not far into Wyoming and made about a 60 mile loop into the mountains on minor roads, some unpaved and all covered with snow. Ironically, it was warm out and I had my sunroof open as I drove in the crunchy snow and played Christmas songs. I passed a handful of cars over the next two hours and just loved the solitude. One of the most spectacular sights was when I noticed what appeared to be a dark patch of land that stood out against the white snow miles off in the distance, and realized it was moving! Unfortunately, it was so far off I couldn’t get a photo of it, but I realized that it was the largest herd of deer I had ever seen. There must have been at least a couple hundred of them, perhaps more, and they were making their way slowly across the snowy landscape at the foot of the distant mountains. However, I did have a few stragglers or brave leaders that popped up close to the road to say hello (and probably whispered to one another, “What in the hell is this guy doing way out here?” That drive was one of the best parts of the whole trip.
After a night in Laramie, I stopped for “breakfast” in Cheyenne at The Donut Shop on Central, a tiny pink stucco building that did not exactly beckon me with its ambiance, but the parking lot was completely filled and I had to park almost a half a block away. When I entered, there were quite literally only about 6 donuts left in the case at 9:30AM, so there was not much selection, but I got a couple vanilla and one strawberry frosted for maybe a buck and a quarter and returned to my car. Skeptically I took a bite of one and was amazed at how good it was. Crunchy on the outside, soft and fresh inside, perfect! No wonder they sell out so quickly.
From there it’s a long and boring haul across eastern Wyoming and western Nebraska, but eastern Colorado and western Kansas are exactly the same, so I wasn’t feeling like I was missing out on anything by being further north. Late in the afternoon I rolled into Lincoln, Nebraska where I met my friend Bill’s sister and mom. Bill was flying in from California later that evening and I couldn’t wait, but Peg and Mom wanted to see me, nonetheless. We met at a Lincoln institution, Lee’s Fried Chicken for an early dinner, and despite being the only patrons in the place, we were “entertained” by an eccentric piano player who was unfortunately playing directly behind our booth in the otherwise empty restaurant! He took requests for a Christmas song for Mom and Peg suggested something by the Carpenters; I wanted to make a request that he stop playing so we could have a conversation, but in the spirit of the holidays, I smiled and stuffed a chicken leg into my mouth. Afterward I drove another few hours and got well into Iowa that night.
A night in central Indiana was next, and the following day I managed to arrive in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in time to have an afternoon breakfast at Pamela’s P & G Diner, home of the best pancakes I’ve ever tasted. I will go 100 miles out of my way to hit Pamela’s, and even though I typically get there twice a year, the waitresses remember me when I come in, which is an added bonus. Pittsburgh had covered all the parking meters with pink cellophane and a sign that said, “Free Parking, Happy Holidays!”, so that was another nice touch. I spent that night in Scranton, the setting for TV’s The Office, and half expected to see Jim and Pam Halpert at a local restaurant on that Friday night though I knew Michael Scott was probably at Hooters. (If you’re not a fan of The Office, just ignore me and read on!)
And so 6 days after leaving San Francisco I rolled into New England for the holidays, staying over Christmas at the same tiny cottage in the woods of southeastern Massachusetts that I‘ve rented a few times in the past, and New Year was spent at an equally cute cottage on the water in Portsmouth, Rhode Island. New England is of course “home” for me and as always, it did not disappoint. (Well, except for the complete lack of so much as a snowflake in the air for my entire visit!)
I brought my small Christmas tree with me on the trip and set it up in my cottage and continued a new tradition of having my friends Norma, Joanne, and Carol-Lynn over for scones and coffee on Christmas Eve Day. I headed to my friend Joyce’s place for Christmas Eve dinner, had an afternoon dinner with Joanne and Norma on Christmas day, and spent the evening at Joyce’s sister in law’s with their extended family. It was a simple and quiet holiday.
Other than that, I took a couple of overnight trips up to New Hampshire, Maine and Vermont, where at least I spotted occasional blankets of snow-covered ground and of course got my lobster fix. I spent a couple of fun days in Boston seeing movies and dining out with Carol, had a couple nice lunches with my friend Maggi, and a group breakfast with Carol Lynn, her sister Brenda, her nieces Melissa and Megan, and Megan’s adorable son Hunter.
An amusing thing happened when I was out with Maggi one day. She is 89 years old, was born in Belfast, Northern Ireland and we have been friends since we met in Freshman English class back in 1976. Maggi has never held back from bluntly expressing how she feels about anything for the entire 44 years I’ve known her, and sometimes she simply explodes and gives you her opinion in no uncertain terms. Well, it happened again, and this time it was regarding the personalized Christmas card I’d sent out this year which featured a manic-looking photo of me with a joke about the stresses of the season. We were riding along on a country road after a nice lunch and out of nowhere she spontaneously combusted, almost shouting at me, “By the way, Dear, that bloody Christmas card you sent me was dreadful! You are not a fool! You are not an idiot! (which sounds like ‘EE-jet’ in her Belfast accent) But you looked the fool in that photograph! You looked like an idiot. Never send me such a thing again!”
I was stunned by her response and silently decided that next year I would send her one of Hallmark’s best. Later that week I shared this encounter with my friend Joyce and was met with an ominous, stone cold silence. After what seemed an eternity, she said, “Well, I told you I didn’t like that picture when you posted it on Facebook last year. I said to Michael (her husband) that I could not understand why you would use that picture on a card. It was awful!” Good Lord! I then shared both of these stories with my friend Carol, preparing myself for the worst. She looked at me in stunned silence and said, “But, Matt, it was funny! It was supposed to be a funny, zany card! And it was! I loved it!” Thank you, Carol. Someone gets my apparently warped sense of humor.
All too soon it was time to turn the car west. My first stop was Albany, NY. I was hoping to spend some time with my friend Brent, who owns a huge farm in Coxsackie. He is always so busy, but as bad luck would have it, on that day he was having a crisis with his goats and really had little time to socialize, so that was disappointing. I did see my old high school friend David, and we had a nice dinner, spent the evening at a café battling over a Scrabble board, and had a hearty breakfast before I left the next day, heading due south.
I spent a night in suburban Washington, and then three days in Virginia Beach visiting with my cousin Marsha and her husband Stan. Marsha has always been the most fun member of my family, and we always have a great time when we’re together. Stan often looks at us quizzically, wondering what in God’s name we find to laugh so hard about. We love to play word games like Scrabble and Upwords, and we spent a nice afternoon walking and playing on some over-sized furniture down at the beach. Marsha is also a talented artist who has been doing beautiful pastels lately and has used a couple of my photos as subjects for her drawings and i loved what she’d done. Stan treated us to a wonderful Italian meal one night and we met our friend Gail for a bountiful breakfast one morning at the Redhead Bay Café, where I truly feel like I belong! I also got to see my dear friends Kathy and Jane for a fantastic brunch at a great place called Eurasia. Virginia Beach really has some great dining options and the company I keep when I am there is even better!
Although I was still bitter about there having been no snow from the time I left California, I have to say that the drive on remote roads along the North Carolina – Tennessee border was really pleasant with the sunroof open and the sun keeping me toasty warm. I really do love this area of the country, and of course had yet another chance to sample some good southern breakfast options at the Buttered Biscuit in Waynesville, North Carolina.
I spent a couple nights in the eastern suburbs of Memphis, Tennessee staying with my friend, Daniel, who is truly more like a brother to me, and his wife Sarah and their two daughters. I spent one beautiful afternoon/evening wandering around Collierville, the town where he and his family live. The center of town is built around a beautiful square with a park in the middle, and it was decked out like one of those towns from a Hallmark Christmas movie. It made me just want to unpack and settle down there, leading a simpler, less complicated life. Perhaps with my retirement looming in the almost immediate future, I should write a script for a new Hallmark film: a retired professor travels to a small Tennessee town and discovers the true meaning of the season – and of course, finds true love. I think it has potential!
The second night of my stay things got interesting, Sarah is a nurse, and was working an overnight shift at the hospital, but the rest of us were awakened by the surreal sound of a tornado warning siren at 4:00 AM. I had barely heard it because it was being drowned out by torrential rain and thunder and lightning, but Daniel soon came to the door and urged me to join him and the girls in an interior closet to ride things out. Note that this was a tornado warning, not a watch, which means that tornadoes had been spotted somewhere in the county.
After all my years of studying natural disasters, I learned something about myself; I felt really claustrophobic sheltering in the closet and was dying of curiosity, wanting to see what was going on outside. I took a few quick jaunts back to my guest room window and watched the lightning getting closer, then rushed back to the closet to update everyone. The girls seemed to take it all in stride (Daniel said they have been through this a couple times within the last year), but when the lights suddenly went out, they began to cry. I made another trip to the window in my room and things outside looked much darker. I wondered if this was because a tornado was bearing down on our neighborhood and I reported my observation quietly to Daniel so the kids wouldn’t hear. However, within a few seconds I started to chuckle as a realization came over me that I sheepishly shared with Daniel, “Um, maybe it just seemed a lot darker out there because the street lights are out!” We had a good laugh over that, and after about an hour the tornado warning expired and we all wearily returned to bed.
We met Daniel’s parents, Diane and Greg in Memphis the next morning at the place where I’d originally met them about 10 years ago, a tiny and popular local restaurant called Brother Junipers. I’d stopped in there for breakfast on one of my many road trips and they were at an adjacent table. I sort of eavesdropped on their conversation and they seemed like kindred spirits, so I butted in, they invited me to join them at their table, and they have proven to be the dearest of friends ever since. I always hate saying goodbye to them, but invariably feel uplifted and energized after a visit. And this just demonstrates what I try to impart to my students and the younger people in my life: get off your phones and devices! So many people now sit at a café or restaurant staring at a screen for an hour. Look up, smile, say hello to people! You just might end up making some amazing new connections in your life! (Of course when I go off on that soap box, many of my students roll their eyes as if to say, “There goes Grandpa again…”, but I hope my message is heeded by at least some of them.
There had been some local storm damage around Memphis and there was an incredible amount of flooding as I drove through Arkansas, where vast plots of farmland looked like shallow lakes. After a night in Tulsa, I zigzagged across Oklahoma toward the panhandle and the weather became sunny and even warmer than it had been. “Give it up, Matt. There’s not going to be any snow on this trip!” I told myself. I stopped for a hike at Gloss Mountain State Park, climbing endless stairs to the top of a brick red mesa and getting a bird’s eye view of the surrounding badlands. It was really quite beautiful, and If I had been dropped blindfolded out of a helicopter, I would have thought I was in Arizona.
After spending a night over the border in Kansas, I headed through the beautiful Sangre di Cristo range of southern Colorado, finally seeing some snow on the ground at least. I spent a relaxing couple of hours soaking at a very uncrowded Pagosa Hot Springs. About two dozen hot tubs of various shapes, sizes and temperatures have been built along the banks of the San Juan River, and there is nothing better than spending a cold winter night soaking in the springs and watching the twinkling lights of this charming town. Afterward I drove another hour over more mountains, marveling at the starry skies and finally arriving in Durango for the night.
The stretch between Durango and California is probably one of my favorite areas of the entire U.S. I stopped at Canyons of the Ancients National Monument near Cortez, Colorado for a nice hike, and then traversed southern Utah through Bluff and Mexican Hat, marveling at the colorful and otherworldly formations of rock that adorn this part of the state. If only this area had an ocean somewhere nearby, I could honestly think seriously about moving there. Ironically, the formations that I love so much were once the seafloor of an ancient ocean that covered this area millennia ago.
On the 70-mile-long stretch of Highway 163 that connects Bluff, Utah and Kayenta, Arizona, running through the heart of ethereal Monument Valley, I ran into a major problem. Just past the Monument Valley turn off, traffic was backed up at least a half mile, and after a long wait, a policeman came to report that a tractor trailer truck had gone out of control, flipped over and was completely blocking the road ahead. They said it could be 2 hours before the road could be cleared, and the only other way to get where I needed to go would have been to backtrack 40 miles into Utah and select a totally different route from there, which would have taken hours. I still had such a long way to go that day, and I didn’t like the idea of waiting or detouring for hours.
And then a Navajo woman who was in the car behind me said she knew a way around the accident using dirt roads though the Navajo Tribal lands. She said she didn’t know how passable they might be, as there was a lot of melted snow and mud, but she had a simple passenger car, so I figured that with my four wheel drive, if she could do it, so could I. One other local man in a pick-up truck joined our little caravan and off we went. Our guide took us on a circuitous 20 minute long ride through the back side of Monument Valley, from which I saw views and perspectives of the formations that I had never seen before. The mud was pretty intense, in places perhaps a foot deep, but my car handled beautifully. At one point my guide stopped and indicated that she was going right, but that we should follow the left fork back to the highway. I lost the pick-up truck, but just followed the muddy track and not long after came rolling back onto the main road, not even a mile beyond where the accident was. In fact, I could see the long line of cars off in the distance.
It was a fun and exciting adventure and saved me a lot of time. The car was covered in so much mud it was almost comical, but I got her to a carwash in Page, Arizona and watched 10 pounds of red mud rinse off of her. Still, when I got home a couple days later, I realized that the inside of the undercarriage was absolutely encrusted with red mud! After a heavy rain in San Francisco, I came out the next morning to find that the rain had washed all the mud out, leaving four little piles of red sand under each wheel! I’d brought a bit of Arizona home with me!
On the last day of the trip, I drove over 800 miles from St. George, Utah to San Francisco, via Las Vegas, Barstow, and Bakersfield. I always hate the final day of a road trip, especially when heading westbound and knowing that work and the daily routine awaits me when I get home. Since this is quite likely my last westbound road trip, it kicked up a lot of memories for me. I thought about that day in August 1982 when I drove my old Plymouth Duster, leaking transmission fluid, held together by duct tape and a prayer, and sporting a “California or Bust” sign in the back window, across the state line and into southern California. I wonder if I could even have imagined back then just how many more road trips to and from the Golden State I’d make over the next 40 years. Actually, it’s a little hard for me to fathom now after having done them all!
And so I returned to California in mid-January, ready to finish my final semester of teaching, retire and move out of California in May and start a summer of exciting travel adventures. But as everyone reading this knows, those were not the plans life had in store for me or for anyone else in the Spring of 2020.