Days 79-85 COMING HOME Via Texas, New Mexico and Arizona

A NOTE TO OUR READERS – While this is the last new installment in our journal, it is our intention to reorganize it in the next several weeks so that it reads in traditional chronological order and readers can directly access different installments and places.  In some cases we may add some other photos as well.

Thursday October 23 (Muriel)

We drove west from New Orleans in rain, crossing the Mississippi and on through southern Louisiana. Much of the way the highway was elevated above lush vegetation and dark waters below us. By the time we entered Texas the rain ended. Lunch was in low, flat eastern Texas. We could see signs of destruction from the 2008 hurricanes: a few damaged roofs, fallen trees at the edges of forest, and damaged billboards. What we saw was nothing like the damage to New Orleans from Katrina, but we did not visit the areas that took the brunt from this year’s hurricanes like Galveston or High Island.

As we drove south toward Houston, traffic became awful. We pushed on to San Antonio for the night. It had been a very long drive, and we enjoyed walking from our motel to a delightful Sushi restaurant for dinner.

Friday October 24 (Muriel)

Today’s drive was even longer than yesterday’s in miles, but fortunately traffic was light. Most of the time the speed limit was 80 MPH and most vehicles traveled at the limit. We drove west, through the Hill Country of Texas. It was surprisingly attractive. We had expected boring flat miles “of miles and miles”. We wondered at the strata along roadway cuts. Although we often were going up and down significant grades, the strata in most places were perfectly horizontal, as if laid down by a monstrous WPA make-work project for unemployed stonemasons. We tried to figure out how the strata could be so horizontal in mountains. Since we were zooming along at 80 MPH, the question obviously didn’t slow us down much. For much of the day, oaks covered much of the land we passed. Gradually the terrain became more arid after I-10 turned northward.

By the time we reached El Paso we were driving through fairly lush Chihuahuan Desert. Since we had made excellent time and gained an hour when we entered Mountain Daylight Savings Time while still in Texas, we drove into Franklin Mountain State Park for a spectacular view of El Paso and part of Mexico.

We continued driving north to Las Cruces, New Mexico. We went to an authentic New Mexican restaurant, where we lovers of hot food did not think to ask how hot the food we ordered would be. The “carne adovo” was so hot that Allan could eat only a bit of it and I, the asbestos-mouth, left half of mine. We were strongly (spicily?) reminded that traditional New Mexican food is much hotter even than most spicy ethnic foods served in California.

Saturday October 25 (Muriel)

We decided to look for New Mexico chili powder to bring home. We drove through the commercial areas of several dismal towns in southern New Mexico in unrequited search of chilies.

Giving up on chilies, we drove to the eastern unit of Saguaro National Park. The park was beautiful, much more so than we recalled from an earlier visit to this half of the park. Southern Arizona had an unusually wet late summer and early fall, so the plants were green and lush. We poked along a very scenic 8-mile loop road, stopping at many of the view spots and reading the informational displays. We took a mile long loop trail a ranger recommended and were very glad we did. Between the drive and walk we saw Curved Bill Thrasher, Verdin, Black-throated Sparrow, Gila Woodpecker, Cactus Wren, Greater Roadrunner, Say’s Phoebe, Phainopepla, and Northern and Gilded flickers. This was more than we expected to see on a hot afternoon. We were well aware that the rhythm of our trip tended to get us to good bird habitat in the middle of the day, rather than prime birdwatching times near sunrise or sunset.

Afterwards we drove into Tucson, to the home of our long time friend Ishwara.

Sunday October 26 (Muriel)

We went with Ishwara and some of her friends to an organic farm southeast of Tucson. We didn’t do much picking, since a hard freeze (27F) had ruined much of their fall crop, even their tomato plants growing in a greenhouse. We enjoyed talking to the interesting farm owners who had moved from Chicago to be farmers in the desert. After buying some of their still good produce, our two-carload group went to lunch at cowboy-country eatery.

Monday October 27 (Muriel)

Allan and I left our friend’s home and drove to the Arizona Sonora Desert Museum, northwest of Tucson, adjacent to the western unit of Saguaro National Park. We had never taken this route to the Desert Museum and thoroughly enjoyed it. Again the desert was spectacular. The day was too hot and windy for the Desert Museum to be at its best, but we spent a pleasant morning there. Its new exhibit “Life on the Rocks” was a treat.

Leaving the Desert Museum, we drove through more beautiful desert, then back onto I-10 and to a hotel in northern Phoenix. We went to the hotel’s happy hour and decided we were not in the mood to go out to dinner. Instead we ordered calamari and wings, feasting in the lounge and watching a very soggy World Series game on TV. We weren’t sure whether the game or our fellow game watchers were more interesting.

Back in our room, we turned on the TV to discover the game was finally suspended because of rain. We both got to work on updating/posting our trip journal.

Tuesday October 28 (Muriel)

We were picked up in the morning by Allan’s cousin Lois, who had moved to Phoenix a couple of years ago. She took us to the Botanic Garden. The monarch butterfly display and the desert plants were lovely. We enjoyed catching up with Lois but dragged in the heat. The three of us were joined by David, another Kotin cousin, for lunch at a Cuban restaurant. We chatted so enthusiastically and long that the restaurant staff commented on it.

Lois returned us to our hotel for a few hours down time, returning to take us to dinner at a local restaurant. We plan to significantly shorten the time between our visits with her.

Wednesday October 29 (Muriel)

Today was the last day of our twelve week journey. We left Phoenix fairly early and drove to L.A., stopping only for lunch and gas until we reached Malibu. Picking cup some dinner at our local grocery store, we went home to the daunting task of unpacking and organizing our stuff.

We were glad to be home. Twelve weeks is a long time to be on the road, although some of our stays were too brief and we had to forgo visiting some very appealing locations that were fairly near our route.

Concluding Thoughts (Allan)

I hope to find time to write—mostly for Muriel and me—a more extended reflection on the trip. But in the meantime and while memories are still relatively sharp, I would like to make some observations on our voyage of discovery.

First the numbers (about which Muriel says I am too fixated). We were gone 85 days. We drove 12, 620 miles. We visited 32 states and provinces, four in Canada and 28 in the USA. We stayed in 44 cities, in 15 of which we visited family or friends. My guess is that we walked perhaps 150 miles and I know we ate too much.

It was “the trip of a lifetime” both in the good sense that it was a completely unique and enriching experience and in the other sense that we have neither the energy or inclination to do it—at least in this format—ever again.

Like the greedy child in a candy store, we really did try to take in too much. This continent is so vast and varied that, in retrospect, trying to “loop it” in only twelve weeks was really presumptuous. As I look back, we saw so many wonderful sites but had too little time to savor many of them. The need to move every few days both added to the stress and limited the opportunity to deepen our appreciation of what we saw.

Perhaps one of the best things about the trip was the unplanned and unexpected treats, which though rarely awe inspiring, were all the more special because they were unplanned and unexpected. Among them were

  • the botanical gardens in Fort Bragg,
  • the Duck Soup restaurant on San Juan Island,
  • eating buffalo burgers in Buffalo Montana and pulled pork in Weldon North Carolina,
  • the street sculptures of Rapid City and Sioux falls,
  • being witnesses at the wedding of two strangers in Sioux Falls,
  • finding the best restaurants in both Charleston and Calgary by accident while walking,
  • the beauties of the north shore of Lake Michigan in Wisconsin and Michigan
  • the special beauty and fantastic fall colours seen as we drove along Georgian Bay in Lake Huron between Sault Ste Marie and Toronto along with a delightful unplanned stop in Parry Sound.
  • and definitely the richness and pleasures of visiting South Dakota, a phrase which, prior to this trip, would have probably provoked a smirk at best.

The cities that stand out as places to revisit are Montreal, Quebec and Savannah, all of which are great walking towns steeped in history but still functioning as vibrant communities not museums. The sea islands of Georgia also deserve more time and exploration.

Contrary to a few cynical comments to the contrary, spending much of twelve weeks in a car with one’s spouse is not a recipe for divorce. If anything, the trip drew us closer together in the joint appreciation of how terribly lucky we are to enjoy so many of the same things at much the same level of interest and commitment. To have a wife who is, in additional to all else, a wonderful travelling companion is good fortune indeed.

Finally, the two overwhelming general impressions we take from our trip is that we live in a huge and varied country with an effectively infinite number of fascinating places and people. For all its tribulations and problems, ours is a wonderful nation.

Equally impressive is the scenery—natural and urban—of our neighbor to the north. Canada is a fascinating country, like the US but still different, that we want to get to know better. The Canadians are wonderful hosts and, in some ways—like national parks, roads, and public restrooms—their country works better than ours.

To all of you who have followed our journey we thank you for your attention and hope that we have inspired you to see new places and people as well.

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