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Category: Cross-Country Road Trip

road trip recap: discovering Nashville & dodging a blizzard!

When planning my cross-country trip, I knew I had to stop in Nashville and gave myself two nights to explore and get a feel for the city. During the great grad school decision-making process of 2006, I agonized over whether to move to Nashville, San Diego, or Albuquerque. My brother suggested visiting Nashville before deciding, but how could this New York City girl (of days past, sadly) move to the south? It just didn’t seem possible, and I didn’t want to spend money on airfare. However, after visiting Nashville, 3.5 years later, I almost feel that I made a mistake. I loved Nashville. And here’s why!

After a 10 hour drive from Oklahoma City to Nashville, I arrived at the Music City Hostel, exhausted and hungry. Music City Hostel is a far busier, friendlier hostel, which is due in part to the nature of Nashville, bringing musicians and party lovers to check it out, and also to the fact that a number of people are actually living on the premises, most trying to break into the music industry. The hostel is a converted apartment complex, with safe parking in the back, and bunk beds in every available room, including the kitchens and living rooms. But instead of staying in their units, people congregate in the main one with the real kitchen, tv, computers, laundry, etc, and everyone was incredibly friendly and helpful. I got a great recommendation for Cafe Coco, where I was able to find vegetarian food without going too far (apparently this cafe/music spot is a must visit). I also went to a seriously impressive wine/liquor store, Midtown Wine and Spirits, which I came across accidentally because I went the wrong direction in my tiredness!

As soon as I walked back in the door with my veggie chili, salad, and wine to unwind, the other guests informed me that the cab was on its way and I was coming out with them. I brought my conveniently-packed chili along with me, dropped everything else off, and headed out to the bars with a group of travelers from Canada, the Netherlands, Scotland, Australia, the US, and elsewhere. We barhopped around Paradise Park, Robert’s, Big Shotz, and Tootsie’s, listening to and dancing to country music, trying out jello shots in giant syringes, and chatting and enjoying the company of new friends. I would never have thought I would dance and dance and dance to country music, but the energy of these bands and these packed bars, even midweek, was infectious. Robert’s in particular, with its cowboy boots on the wall, and its delicious fried pickles, was a standout.

Robert's in Nashville, TN East End of Nashville, TN

I arrived home very late at night and got a serious night’s sleep. I needed it after all all that driving and dancing. 🙂 It worked out well, because as I was getting ready to head out into the dreary, rainy day, my dormmate came home from a job interview and we headed to the East End to explore together. East Nashville is apparently quite the interesting, up-and-coming neighborhood, and I enjoyed all the quirky shops we stopped in at. We had lunch at Calypso Cafe, which I’d found out about in a search for vegetarian restaurants. The food was Caribbean-fusion, with greens and beans and coconut and cornbread, and was tasty, though not my favorite meal during my trip.

Calypso Cafe in Nashville's East End

Calypso Cafe in Nashville's East End

Afterwards, we wandered around the Five Points area on foot. My favorite stop was the Green Wagon, an adorable eco-friendly store located in a cute house with organic and natural products, unique reusable bags and goods, locally made art, jewelry, and chocolate, and an extremely friendly woman working there who gave us good pointers and showed that Nashville charm. If I hadn’t been so low on funds, I would have bought an amazing shopping bag made of repurposed materials, but I did manage to find something I totally love: a locally-produced lotion (or precious ointment, as the label says) made with all natural ingredients. Something like that is a perfect souvenir, because not only did it soothe my chapped hands, but I continue to use it and remember the cute little shop. I also picked up a vintage purse, and my hostel buddy got a great top.

Next, we went to two vintage shops (where I almost bought a pair of blue cowboy boots, but they just didn’t fit right), followed by a requisite stop in the Pied Piper Creamery. The owner of Pied Piper was super nice and entertained my questions about her business. She had some fun flavors, but more importantly, she had a welcoming environment for kids and adults alike. The ice cream shop shares its cute house with Great Stuff, a gift shop with some neat things, including a hat which I couldn’t resist.

Pied Piper Creamery

Pied Piper Creamery

After East Nashville, we figured we had to do something stereotypically Nashville, and went to the Opryland Hotel. This place was totally an exercise in excess, all decked out for the holidays. It’s possible to get lost wandering around and seeing all the Christmas decorations. I imagine during other seasons this greenhouse is in bloom with gorgeous plants and flowers.

Christmas at the Opryland Hotel

Christmas at the Opryland Hotel

Christmas at the Opryland Hotel

After a long day of wandering in the damp Nashville air, we headed back to the hostel to hang out and get ready for another night on the town. This night was even crazier than the one before. I got my own order of fried pickles for dinner (I know, it’s embarrassing but SO GOOD) at Robert’s, and we danced and danced to a fantastic band at The Stage on Broadway, who played a mix of more 90’s and 00’s pop with the odd rock/country hybrid song tossed in. Good times.

Just before I left for the bars, I got a call from my parents, who saw on the news that a major blizzard was heading to the Virginia/DC region, precisely where I was planning to travel the next day to meet up with my brother. My parents suggested heading north to avoid the storm, and though I was bummed to miss hanging out with my brother and seeing his law school (and honestly tempted to wait it out in Nashville), I took their advice and planned to drive north. I got up on a rainy day and headed out to begin the longest drive yet. Destination: Buffalo, New York.

Yes, my friends, it is possible to drive from Nashville, TN to Buffalo, NY in one day. I crossed more state lines that day than any other, drove in pouring rain (but was comforted by the fact that people actually knew how to drive in the rain, unlike in San Diego), and passed through Louisville, KY, Cincinnati, OH, Cleveland, OH, Erie, PA, before finally, finally, finally making it to Buffalo, NY. I chose Buffalo because I wanted to cover as much ground as possible, and it was the only place where I could find a semi-reasonably priced hotel within an 8-12 hour drive of Nashville. That said, it was a very long, exhausting drive and I only made it through because I knew the end was in sight! Leaving Ohio and still having two hours left to drive was disheartening, but, again, I made it. 🙂

I actually thought I’d try to go to Niagara Falls the next morning before heading on my way, but as it turns out, the storm was coming up the east coast quickly and I decided to play beat the storm to New Hampshire instead. And I won (snow didn’t even hit NH, but I probably would have had to contend with it driving through Massachusetts any later than I did). The drive from Buffalo to NH was relatively pleasant, and even though I paid a hefty toll to drive I-90, the convenient rest stops along the way were worth it.

And just like that, I pulled into my parents’ driveway at 6:30 on December 19th, after a 3,795 mile journey. I absolutely loved the entire trip, even the days where I did nothing but drive through uninteresting landscapes and places I didn’t get to explore. To mentally approach a trip of this size, I just had to take it in pieces, which is really the best way to approach life in general. There’s a reason that I know how to say step by step, little by little in many different languages. I have a newfound appreciation for some of the areas I’d never considered interesting before, especially those random stops where I got food or gas or tea and met a friendly person. I’m always interested in getting a broader perspective than the beaten path, but flying around the US has never given me too much of a chance. Now I’ve got plenty of ideas for new road trips. 🙂

Thanks to those of you that read through this whole recap, and hopefully it inspired you to get on the road!

road trip recap: the long road to Nashville

As I mentioned in my last post, after Albuquerque, the road trip became much more about the road. Like I said, I was limited by time, and I also plotted my trip out by places I could stay safely and cheaply. Looking at the map of Route 40, I decided that Oklahoma City would be my next stop. I had an 8 hour drive ahead of me, passing through the rest of New Mexico and the very top of Texas, all along Route 40, the interstate with which I got very acquainted as the majority of my trip was spent on it. 😉

Driving along Route 40!

Before I left the hostel, I got to meet the donkeys that live on the property. I love horses and their relatives, so I had fun watching them run around and play with each other. I also got to say goodbye to Ringo, the friendliest dog in New Mexico. 😉

Donkeys at the Hostel!

Braying Donkeys

Ringo the Dog

Then I got on the road, saying goodbye to New Mexico. I forgot to mention this earlier, but New Mexican sunsets are absolutely gorgeous, too. It’s interesting how each region has such unique sunsets. There wasn’t too much to see on Route 40 through the rest of New Mexico. Like with my trip from Flagstaff, I was reluctant to stop too early in the journey, but I did pass through Tucumcari, New Mexico, where I finally got my shot of something proving that I passed along the historic Route 66. I hopped out of my car, thought I might find somewhere to eat lunch, but as it stood, the town was even smaller than I expected so I kept on going to Texas.

Route 66 Marker in Tucumcari, NM

I’d never been to Texas before. While Austin intrigues me, Texas really doesn’t. I was amused to hear the polite Texan accent and speech (ma’am for the first time in a while), but mainly I was happy to get through Texas as quickly as possible. (I did take a picture of the largest cross in America, though, as I passed by.) I stopped in Amarillo to get something at Dairy Queen (what? that’s not healthy road trip eats?!), and again in Shamrock to fill up my gas tank for the second time that day. 500+ miles is a lot of ground to cover.

From there, it was a straight shot to Oklahoma City. While the scenery in Texas was exceptionally flat and uninteresting, western Oklahoma was marginally better. The traffic got a bit more congested in the afterwork hours, and I was surrounded by a lot of terrible drivers. I did, however, see another surprisingly lovely sunset. As I got closer to the city, I drove past a giant display of Christmas lights, which made me smile, but unfortunately, no pictures, boo!

I had booked a room at the Days Inn Oklahoma City Moore, since it got such great reviews on TripAdvisor (see link). It was also only $40 for the night I was there, which was a bargain compared to most other hotels. The hotel is located a bit south of Route 40, and as I got closer I got freaked out because it’s in an area that seemed to have a lot of abandoned car sales lots. However, the hotel itself is super new and comfortable and the parking lot was well-lit and patrolled by security, so I knew I was all good. Plus, I had a king-sized bed, a tv to catch the end of So You Think You Can Dance’s final performance episode, and a microwave to heat up my burrito from the Chocolate Maven. Let me tell you, I was so glad that I had bought something vegetarian for dinner the day before, since there was no food anywhere near the hotel (not that it would have even been veggie-friendly) and I was beyond exhausted from the boring drive. It’s a struggle to stay alert over such a distance!

Despite my comfortable bed, I set my alarm early to get on the road to Nashville. This time I had a 10 hour drive ahead of me, and I wanted to avoid driving too much in the dark (see above comment on having trouble staying alert, especially at night!). After eating a ton of food at the complimentary breakfast bar (I was super hungry and delighted in the over-processed foods, haha), I took off. I passed through Oklahoma fairly quickly, stopping in at a tourist trap to check out moccasins and pin where I was from on a cool map that tracked all their visitors. But I was equally happy to breeze through the state of Oklahoma. I know I don’t know the state, but people just seemed awfully sad everywhere I stopped. It bummed me out.

Somehow, I managed to drive across the entire state of Arkansas without stopping. I wanted to see Little Rock, but Route 40 passes just north of the city and I still had a lot of driving to do to get to Nashville. I think all of these southern states would make for an interesting road trip at another moment. Just after crossing the bridge into Tennessee, I stopped in Memphis, which looked like a pretty cool city from my brief moments gazing out over the river. With all the music history there, I plan to return someday to see more.

Memphis, TN

Memphis, TN

By this point, I was getting tired of the road, so I wished I had actually booked the hostel in Memphis. But I kept on truckin’ and made it through the final few hours to Nashville. I have a lot to say about Nashville, so I’m going to save it for my next (and final) post. Nashville was my last sightseeing stop before meeting up with my brother in Virginia, or at least, that’s what I thought!

road trip recap: Albuquerque to Santa Fe and everything in between

Yesterday while I was teaching my class, I got distracted by the map of the United States on the wall. I think it was the first time I’ve been faced with a physical map since my trip, as Google maps and I are good friends. 😉 I visually traced my travel route, finally feeling a sense of surprise that I covered so much ground during my road trip. (And a sense of embarrassment that I never drove up to LA in the three years I lived in southern California.) This country is big! I also realized that because I’ve already done such a long road trip, I now see potential trips as entirely possible (given the right amount of time off of work). I still want to do the Colorado/Utah/Arizona/New Mexico route in the summer. This has inspired me to dig out my wall maps of the US and the world from my parents’ house on my next visit. When I lived in New York, I kept them on the walls, to inspire me. And I think it’s about time I do the same again.

My trip up to Santa Fe and back again was actually one of the last days of exploring I did during the road trip. With the deadline of meeting my brother in Virginia quickly approaching, I was getting back on the road for long stretches of time the next day. So I had to make the most of this sightseeing trip.

After a night in the snow and almost-scary stillness at the hostel, I got up early amidst beautiful sunlight streaming in the windows of the beautifully designed Sandia Mountain Hostel. (You can also check out my review and extra photos on Yelp.) The reason I loved this hostel is that it was designed to be a hostel, reminding me of places I stayed in South America, with spacious lockers to secure your backpack and belongings, with a big common area for people to get to know each other as they travel through, and a cozy, warm feeling in an area with personality. It seems that business hasn’t felt very sustainable over the years, so it may not be in operation too much longer, but if you are planning a trip, I highly suggest staying here for the true hosteling experience. If you’re in luck, as I was this evening, you’ll get to meet some interesting people with stories to tell.

Sandia Mountain Hostel

I got on the road bright and early, taking the Turquoise Trail along Route 14 to Santa Fe. This gave me a chance to stop off in all the small towns along the way. Though the Tinkertown museum was closed for the season, I did get to see the revitalized town of Madrid, NM, a coal-mining village turned ghost town turned artist community. I passed through early in the morning, but I imagine it would be fun to wander and shop.

Next, I arrived in Cerrillos, which was once considered for the capital of New Mexico, but now is pretty much a ghost town. The town was still as I admired the view and the buildings with their remnants of signs and advertisements from much earlier years. It reminded me of New York City’s old advertisements which you can sometimes spot if you look up and pay attention to the paint on the brick buildings. I wandered the very quiet streets and took pictures of the interesting buildings. Note the Christmas bouquet of dried chiles in the photo below.

View from Cerrillos


After Cerrillos, I was almost in Santa Fe. I took one last shot of the scenic mountain landscape, and headed into the city.

View from the Turquoise Trail

Though Santa Fe is known for its museums, I visited on a Monday when most of them are closed, and I’d already seen two the day before. (I’m not much of a museum person, despite my former residence in NYC!) After checking out the views from Museum Hill, I headed over to the art district on Canyon Road, passing the cute little houses and galleries. When I thought I might park and browse a bit (window-shopping, obviously), I realized how touristed and expensive it was there as the “public” parking lot was $10 or more. So instead I headed back down to the main plaza. I took the requisite photos of the Spanish-style colonial buildings and churches, so familiar to me after time in South America.

Main Plaza in Santa Fe

I’d been excited about Santa Fe for a while, hearing rave reviews from friends, and knowing its reputation for being an artsy area. But upon arrival, I wasn’t that excited about it. It reminded me of Cuzco, Peru, with its expensive city center filled with tourists buying art inspired by the people of the region who live in poverty. I’m not sure if that’s the case in Santa Fe, but I didn’t really care for it. What I did enjoy was browsing the handcrafted silver and beaded jewelry, ceramics, and art sold by Native Americans along one building’s wall in the main plaza. It bothered me that they had to sit on the cold ground in order to sell their art, even though they need permits to sell. Of course, their work was gorgeous and I got some beautiful earrings and bracelets. I wish I’d had more money to spare, because the work was amazing. I love silver jewelry made by artisans, and this was worth the trip.

After getting my fill of the plaza, I decided to leave the city center. Not very inspired by the options in the guidebook, I pulled off to see a Christmas artisan’s market by the remodeled train station, where the Farmer’s Market is held in warmer months. While these handmade goods were created with care, it reminded me of the typical market you can see in any town in America. I left empty handed and decided to look for a local bakery which I’d found out about, the Chocolate Maven. I stocked up on food for my long drive to Oklahoma City the next day, and I was very happy I did so. I bought a peach empanada, a green chile and cheese croissant, Santa Fe’s traditional cookies, biscochitos, and the smartest decision, a black bean, green chile, and cheese burrito ready to be warmed and eaten. I was so overwhelmed by the selection that I neglected to buy what they are known for: brownies!! Next time. This cafe and bakery is located in a kind of random area, but it’s worth checking out.

Tired of Santa Fe despite only spending a few hours there, I decided to head back to Albuquerque via the highway. Luckily for me, I had just enough time for my final detour to Kasha Katuwe Tent Rocks National Monument. This is absolutely a must-see. To get there, you drive through Cochiti pueblo and turn off onto a dirt road, so it is really is off the beaten path. I totally lucked out (again!) because I showed up at 3:50, just before the gates closed, but the attendant was already in his car to head out early since no one had come by in hours. He ran to the booth and apologized to me, but no worries, I was just happy I showed up in time to see these cool tent rocks. I had one hour to explore this very quiet landscape, as I had to be out by 5.

Since I couldn’t take the long hike, I power-walked along the trail, making sure I’d get to see all angles and take good pictures and not get trapped in the middle of nowhere by myself with my car packed full of my belongings (at least I had food!). 🙂 It was gorgeous to be in this haunting landscape, with only trees and mountains in my line of vision. I continue to be amused at how quiet my hikes were. My city-dwelling self couldn’t help but worry that that it was dangerous, but really, it’s peaceful. Sometimes it’s nice to feel like you’re the only one around.

Kasha Katuwe Tent Rocks National Monument

Kasha Katuwe Tent Rocks National Monument

Kasha Katuwe Tent Rocks National Monument

Kasha Katuwe Tent Rocks National Monument

Kasha Katuwe Tent Rocks National Monument

After a lovely hike, I got back in my car and drove back to Albuquerque. I decided to stop in at Satellite Coffee again for some tea, wi-fi, and good vibes, and then headed back to the hostel. Luckily, when I arrived, there were actually other guests: two college girls road-tripping from Ohio to one’s home in LA (via Las Vegas), and a guy moving back to Albuquerque from Minneapolis. Interestingly, the girl from LA and the guy from Albuquerque had already stayed at this hostel and completely fell in love with the place. What can I say, it’s a charmed space. I had fantastic conversation that night, strangers connecting and sharing random things, because this is the one chance you have to talk. I love that about hostels, and even though I needed to get up early to drive to Oklahoma City the next day, I stayed up late, never missing an opportunity to learn about someone new.

road trip recap: exploring Albuquerque

After a day of driving through and poking around less urban parts of New Mexico, I was ready for a day of city wandering.  On a day-to-day basis, I am really much more a city person, though I do draw a lot of strength from hiking through forests, gazing at mountains, and enjoying the waves crashing on the beach.  Albuquerque was a city I’d almost lived in, as I’d been offered a fantastic package to attend grad school there, and I was seriously tempted by the opportunity.  The American Southwest has always fascinated me with its beauty and history, and after visiting Albuquerque, I know I would have enjoyed my time there.

I woke up bright and early for two reasons: to check out of the creepy hostel, and to go and get a big breakfast at the well-known Frontier Restaurant.  I had to taste green chile.  I had to try sopapillas.  I had to experience New Mexican cuisine and compare it to my experience with San Diego-style Mexican burritos.  Even if it was 9:30 in the morning.

Breakfast at Frontier Restaurant, Albuquerque

Yes, this food was as good as it looked. And I probably didn’t need to eat for the rest of the day. That’s the problem with food tourism — you get full and you don’t want to eat all the other treats you come across! After finishing my meal in the busy restaurant, I decided to explore a well-preserved section of Route 66, now known as Central Ave. I saw abandoned motel after abandoned motel, along with those still in use. Again, I felt a little silly hopping out of my car in run-down areas to take pictures of the signs, but others have captured them.

Then I headed back up the road to Old Town to wander around the square before it got too busy. I took pictures of the well-known church, wandered around a bit, and then headed off to see some museums.

Church in Old Town, Albuquerque

Flags in Albuquerque

I absolutely loved the Albuquerque Museum of Art and History. I got to see gorgeous paintings and photos by local artists, learn about the history of the area, and check out old maps of the region. The best part was that they offer free admission until 2 on Sundays, so it fit my budget. 🙂 If you visit, check it out; I thought it was completely worth my precious time! Next, I headed to the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center to learn about the different pueblos and cultural practices/arts/textiles of the Native American groups of the region. As many know, this is a fantastic resource in the area, and I got lucky again, as they were having an artisan fair and performances of all types from the community, including a rock band and a traditional storyteller.

Afterwards, I headed back to Old Town to do some browsing in the shops. I love artisan-made jewelry, textiles, pottery, and crafts, so I wanted to see what was on offer. There was beautiful stuff, but I knew I planned on heading to Santa Fe the next day, where I could buy from the artisans themselves.

While I was wandering the plaza, I saw something completely ridiculous and amazing: a man singing from within a snow globe. A crowd gathered around him, confused and amused. Who knew?

Man Singing in a Giant Snow Globe, Albuquerque

In fact, this region has more Christmas spirit than anywhere I’d visited in a long time. Granted, the warm temperatures of San Diego didn’t lend well to that cozy winter feeling, but I did appreciate it, as it got me in the mood and more excited to return to my family’s home just in time for the holiday.

Christmas Tree in Albuquerque

Santa Bear in Old Town Albuquerque

As it got later and colder, I decided to head back to Nob Hill, where the college students and young professionals of the area tend to hang out. I’d heard about La Montañita Food Coop, and always loving a good natural foods market, I grabbed some food there for my breakfast and lunch the next day. They have a great little basket with remnants of interesting cheeses, which you can sample before committing. They also have all the organic breads I love, perfect for someone on a road-trip.

Then, knowing that the hostel I planned on staying at that night did not have wi-fi, I checked out a local coffee chain, Satellite Coffee. I got a nice pot of tea and settled down in a comfortable chair to catch up on things. I also ordered a delicious wrap, despite the fact that I was still full from my breakfast almost 12 hours earlier. But most importantly: their staff was completely attentive and friendly, perfect for a lonely traveler like myself.

After a long, but full, day, I drove to my next hostel, the Sandia Mountain Hostel located just outside Albuquerque in Cedar Crest. I’ll write more about this lovely place in my next post, but I must emphasize this: stay here if you can!! It’s beautiful, designed to be a hostel, and so much safer and more comfortable for travelers than other local options. That said, I showed up during a small snowstorm and didn’t see the beauty until the next morning, as I spent that night in an empty hostel, with only the quiet and an FM radio to entertain me. 😉

Next up: the Turquoise Trail and Santa Fe!

road trip recap: en route to Albuquerque

I can’t believe it’s been 3.5 months since my road trip. With life totally getting in the way, I’m way behind on recapping. So here goes.

The best part of the actually on-the-road portion of the trip was driving from Flagstaff to Albuquerque. It gave me a chance to follow the historic Route 66, stopping off in small towns in Arizona and New Mexico which had faded away as the highway rerouted traffic from the main street of America. I also knew I’d have a chance to check out a couple national monuments. So after eating breakfast, saying goodbye to my hostel buddies, and repacking my car, I took off.

The only downside to having a destination in mind (and trying to beat potential weather issues) is that you kind of have to breeze past the first potential stops on your path, because you are not sure how much time you’ll need for the subsequent stops. You also want to drive as much as you can early on, before you get tired and bored of the road, and I personally prefer driving during the day when you can actually see the landscape. Though Albuquerque is only about a five hour drive from Flagstaff, I had to budget a few more hours to stop and explore along the way, which meant my detours in Arizona pretty much consisted of taking an exit, driving along Route 66, and getting back on at the next exit or so.

But I did make sure to pass through Winslow, AZ, memorialized in Route 66 lore. It is a completely deserted ghost town, nothing much to see, just abandoned motels and tourist markers at the famous corner. While a bit freaky, it was also fascinating. But the best part of the early drive was passing through the Painted Desert of Arizona. After falling in love with the mountains in Mendoza, Argentina, I’ve been equally in love with how mountains can take color as if they were painted using watercolors. Arizona’s Painted Desert was gorgeous to drive through, but unfortunately I only have my memories (and Google images). The striations were really beautiful. Take my word for it. I wasn’t too interested in the detour to see fossils, but on another trip I would try to find a way to walk about and photograph the landscape.

After observing the gorgeous landscape (which really reaffirmed my joy for this road trip, as if the Grand Canyon and Sedona weren’t enough), I continued on to Gallup, New Mexico, where I drove up and down Route 66. Though the old highway is run down in many other areas, it’s in pretty good shape in Gallup, which is one of the more sizable cities in this area. However, there are plenty of abandoned motels, and it’s just kind of staggering to realize how many motels were needed to house all the people passing through. For lunch, I found a random burrito joint, the Chili Factory, in a strip mall. But one thing you quickly learn about New Mexico is that even the most generic looking restaurant still serves up good New Mexican burritos. Even though I’d studied my food options beforehand, I forgot that you have two choices for chile, red or green, or if you’re daring, Christmas, a mix of both. I started out with red chile, the more mild of the two, and even though I got a simple bean and cheese burrito, I realized that there was something about New Mexican food that totally beat out San Diego style burritos. It’s the chile. (Though I have to give credit where it’s due — I now need more heat on all my food thanks to Mexican cuisine in SD.)

After considering stopping to shop, I got back on the road, detouring off of Route I-40 south on Route 603 to drive across the region on Route 53.  With the weather only semi-cooperative, I experienced my first time driving in (very light) snow in a long while, but luckily it wasn’t too bad. For a while, I questioned if this detour was even worth it, as the landscape was dull and the weather was ugly. But my questions were answered once I got to El Morro National Monument, otherwise known as Inscription Rock.  From the approach, it didn’t look like much; I even asked the staff member if it was worth the entrance fee.  But you know what?  Seeing the signatures of people who passed through this area, stopping at this point hundreds of years before is actually pretty damned cool.

From hieroglyphs…

El Morro National Monument (Inscription Rock)

El Morro National Monument (Inscription Rock)

…to Spanish explorers/colonizers letting you know “pasamos por aquí” (we passed through here)…

El Morro National Monument (Inscription Rock)

…to Americans settling the west…

El Morro National Monument (Inscription Rock)

…it’s just pretty cool to see how many people felt the need to leave their mark.  Click on the below photo to get a better sense of just how many inscriptions are on this big rock housing an oasis and proving a perfect stopping point.

El Morro National Monument (Inscription Rock)

El Morro National Monument (Inscription Rock)

Luckily for me, the weather cooperated a bit, from a steady snow to the sun breaking through the clouds. This was definitely the trend of my trip.  It may not look like much in the photos, but this was one of the coolest things I saw.  It felt good to get a chance to go off the beaten path (you know, the Interstate), reliant on my own schedule and whims.  After I finished my tour (unfortunately the snow prohibited a longer hike, boo!), I headed back to my car, where a nice man stopped to chat with me after spotting my California plates.  As a man with many daughters, he felt the need to give me some words of wisdom about Albuquerque, namely where the young people hung out and where to find vegetarian food.  New Mexicans are nice like that.

With about 1.5 hours remaining in my trip, I continued on Route 53 and passed through El Malpaís National Monument.  El Malpaís is actually jointly managed by the National Park Service and the state and local governments, just depending on what section you’re passing through.  The name means “bad land,” and it refers to the volcanic landscape; yes, volcanic rock in New Mexico.  I had to check it out.  You’re allowed to hike in the area, but it’s treacherous hiking, completely deserted, and I was not prepared to get myself into any trouble.  However, I did manage to get some neat pictures of the black rock peeking out from the snow.

El Malpais National Monument

After hopping around a bit on the volcanic rock, in the middle of nowhere, with no one around, I got back on the road.  It was lovely, but hard to capture from the driver’s seat.

Road to Albuquerque

My last stop before Albuquerque was a turnout overlooking a pueblo.  It is illegal to take pictures inside the pueblos, so even though I passed through a few, this is the only picture I have showing the landscape of the areas surrounding Albuquerque.  As I considered going to grad school in ABQ, it was neat for me to see these sights I would have gotten used to.

New Mexican Pueblo

Approaching the city, suddenly it felt like southern California again, a maze of freeways and highways connecting you to various neighborhoods of Albuquerque.  I checked into my hostel, which was completely deserted with only two or so other guests, and immediately knew I wanted to stay in the other local hostel the next night.  Because the hostel was located in a weird area between Old Town and downtown, it was the first time I was particularly paranoid about the safety of my car and belongings.  Luckily my (empty) dorm room overlooked the hostel’s parking lot so I could check on everything. I tolerated the old, worn-in hostel for one night and went to sleep early in order to explore Albuquerque as much as I could the next day.

road trip recap: seeing Sedona

A quick update: I moved to Providence, Rhode Island just one week ago to start an exciting job in my field. Though it’s funded through a temporary grant through the end of June, it’s a great project and if all goes well, I’ll be in Providence indefinitely! New city, new job, new apartment: lots to explore and experience.

On to the recap: After a lovely day at the Grand Canyon, I decided to stay in Flagstaff another night to give me a chance to explore Sedona, famous for its amazingly beautiful red rock scenery and energy centers, or vortexes. I’d heard about Sedona through a former co-worker who visited on his honeymoon, and I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to check it out for myself. As the clouds rolled in at Flagstaff’s altitude, I headed back down the mountain and was lucky enough to find the sun breaking through the clouds during a solid portion of my day.

It is a must to take the scenic route 89A between Flagstaff and Sedona. Along the winding road, you encounter lots of trees (snow-covered during my trip), but then you gradually get your first views of the red rocks. If leaving from Flagstaff, make sure to stop at the first official park turn off for a viewpoint, but most importantly, for a chance to shop the silver jewelry, pottery, and other goods made by local Native American craftsmen at very reasonable prices.

Snow-Covered Scenic Drive from Flagstaff to Sedona

Outside Sedona

As the red rocks got closer and closer, I got a chance to get out of my car and do a little bit of light hiking. I highly suggest visiting the region in an off-season, because you can take in the views by yourself. When I was wandering along the path in the photo below, I didn’t see anyone else until I was leaving, which helped me appreciate my surroundings even more.

Posing on the Trail

After driving through the center of town, I headed to the state park to see the views of Cathedral Rock. I got a later start, and the weather was only semi-cooperative, so I didn’t have a chance to see all the major views. A word to the wise: don’t pay to go to the state park! The best views with the classic reflections in the water are only accessible from a different path, on the other side of the river, which is free. I had a local resident explain this to me from the other side of the river (a little too challenging to cross with two cameras), but I didn’t get there. Do some research and get the best view! I think I did pretty well, though.

Red Rocks and Reflections

As the sun began to set, the colors playing off the rocks became unreal and amazingly beautiful. I drove around, surrounded by the rocks, watching the colors change at each turn, so unfortunately I don’t have many photos to share. I definitely would like to go back to Sedona for a few days and hike around more, maybe do a vortex tour and experience the energy (though I was close at Cathedral Park), and get some amazing shots. More reason to return. But dusk was truly gorgeous.

View of Sedona

After a day of exploring and admiring, I headed back to the hostel to plan my drive the next day, as I wanted to make sure to see as much as possible en route to Albuquerque, New Mexico!

road trip recap: goodbye, San Diego! hello, Arizona!

While I still have some free time as I look for a job, I’m trying to catch up on various projects, so it’s about time I describe the road trip that got me here in the first place.  As I’ve mentioned previously, I had a lot to do before my big road trip, but one of the things I didn’t do was overplan.  With over three thousand miles to cover and the potential for winter weather derailing the best laid plans, I decided to keep my schedule flexible.  Before this trip, the longest distance I’d ever driven was from NH to NYC, about 5 hours, and for this journey, I knew 5 hours was the absolute minimum I would drive between two destinations.  How would I feel?  What would I want to see?  I gave myself some flexibility to figure that out as I went.  Friends and family stressed about my trip for me, I just focused on the present moment.

Looking at the map, it hit me that I could realize a number of dreams on this trip: visiting the Grand Canyon, exploring some of New Mexico, particularly Albuquerque, where I’d considered attending graduate school, and traveling along Route 66.  Instead of taking the southernmost route, I decided to spend the majority of my drive on Route 40, which more or less follows the historic Route 66.  I plotted some possible stops based on distance and my own interest, and decided to bypass Phoenix and head directly to Flagstaff, Arizona.  Flagstaff is about 8 hours from San Diego and a short drive to the Grand Canyon, with a nice affordable hostel, perfect for a roadtripper’s budget!

After returning from San Francisco, there was not much to do except to finish packing, shipping, selling, and giving away my belongings, which I was doing right up until the morning I left.  On December 9, I got up early to ship some final packages, packed my car with all my random belongings, then deep-cleaned my apartment so my landlord could inspect it before I left.  (My biggest recommendation on that front is wear gloves even with natural cleaning products!  My hands were dry and cracked for almost a month afterward!)  It took a little longer than expected, so I finally left at 2PM.

Leaving San Diego was a surreal experience.  I just got in the car and drove away from my home of three years.  Just like that, I was free! 🙂  I started on Route 8, one of San Diego’s main freeways, which I’d driven more times than I could count to my job in El Cajon, but then I kept going. And going.  El Centro was my last stop in California, and as I drove up and down the mountains into Arizona, the sun began to set.  A fitting end to my California life.  After refueling in Gila Bend, Arizona, I headed north around Phoenix, ending up on Route 17 to Flagstaff.  The drive was relatively uneventful, save for stopping for border patrol along Route 8.

A classic moment:
Border Patrol agent, peering into my car, totally packed with my belongings, with a comforter covering the mess and bags of food scattered on top: “Where are you headed?”
Me: “New Hampshire,” laughing on the inside.
Border Patrol agent: “You’ve got a long drive ahead of you.”
Me: “I know!”

As I continued along Route 17, my car’s thermostat kept dropping and the sides of the road revealed the piles of snow from a recent storm.  I left San Diego where it was around 60 degrees, and as I climbed the mountain, I watched the temperature drop to 30, 20, 10.  When I arrived in Flagstaff around 10:30 at night, I realized I should probably change out of my flip-flops before stepping out of the car.  Brrrr!

Checking into the hostel was easy, I unloaded my most valuable possessions from the car, and before long I was settled and eating a late meal in the common area, chatting with a Canadian heading north from Guatemala and Mexico.  And then I finally slept, a well-deserved reward after a hectic day.

The next morning I woke to hear some other guests discussing how they couldn’t get to the Grand Canyon on the shuttle that day, also the only day they could go.  One voice was of my Canadian friend from the night before, and I knew I could save the day, so I stepped outside and asked, “Why don’t you come with me?”  The other guy, an American, said, “Do you have room for two?”  Knowing how packed my car was, I was a little apprehensive, but then they offered to help me unpack and repack my backseat, and just like that I had two buddies for my trip to the Grand Canyon.  Both guys were super nice, fun to talk to with interesting stories of their own, and inspirational travel partners because they got me to do a snow hike that I hadn’t planned for but was glad I did.

As we entered Grand Canyon National Park, the girl at the booth asked, “Where are you going?” I looked at her, confused, and said, “the Grand Canyon?”  She laughed and gestured to the packed backseat.  “Oh!  I’m moving across the country but am giving these guys a ride.”  We laughed about my completely matter of fact response to a question that seemed strange to me with our destination evident.

And then we were inside the National Park, continuing our drive, when suddenly we glanced to the right and BOOM! there it was.  The gorgeous, snow-covered Grand Canyon.  I’ll let the photos speak for themselves.

Snow-Covered Grand Canyon

We checked out some viewpoints, grabbed some lunch, and then did a small hike down into the Canyon, against some of my nervous protests about the cold, snow, sunset, etc.  Luckily, my Canadian friend brought a helpful hiking “companion” which really upped my confidence.

Posing at the Grand Canyon

Even though we did hike in a lot of shade, we still got a good perspective of the canyon walls.  I plan to return someday to do a longer hike in a different season.

Snow-Covered Grand Canyon

After hitting the first hiker’s rest stop on the path down, we hurried back to the top to see the sunset.  The setting sun made for some gorgeous pictures, both of us posing and and of the colors of the canyon walls.

Snow-Covered Grand Canyon, Approaching Dusk

Posing at the Grand Canyon

Grand Canyon at Dusk

It turns out I was lucky to go that day, the first of many lucky decisions I made.  The roads had just been reopened after a big snowstorm; the next day, the canyon was hidden by clouds; and the day after that, another blizzard was supposed to hit.  I was very thankful that it worked out: the Grand Canyon was amazing and a perfect opening to the road trip.

three months later…

I can hardly believe it, but only three months have passed since my last post.  My silence is indicative of all the big changes that have occurred since then: selling, giving away, and packing all of my belongings; saying goodbye to my friends and my students; driving across the country alone (!) and exploring new sites and cities (!!); and arriving home in time to spend the holidays with my family.  The first month of 2010 has been well spent working on finding a job and getting organized, and now that February has already arrived, I’m gearing up to set some goals for myself.

But let’s back up a moment!  After my announcement in November, I went through a whirlwind of preparations, beginning with boxing up my books, shoes, purses, and other extraneous items, selling all of my furniture over Thanksgiving weekend, and trying to figure out how to pack my tiny Corolla with belongings either too heavy, too valuable, or too fragile for UPS or USPS.  (Perhaps I’ll make another post in the future with suggestions.)  It wasn’t as difficult or as frustrating as I’d anticipated, though I did have to give away a number of things I’d hoped to take with me at the last moment, including my beloved plants!

Besides the obvious packing aspect, I also set to visiting some San Diego sights I’d managed not to get to over the three years I lived there, and revisiting others that I loved. Mostly I said goodbye to the Pacific Ocean and the lovely ocean (and sunset) views.

Clouds & Sea at Torrey Pines
This is taken from the beach after a lovely hike through Torrey Pines State Reserve.

Surfers & Sunset @ Swami's Beach
This was the classic sunset shot I always intended to get at Swami’s Beach in Encinitas.

While I do miss the San Diego sunsets, I truly do believe that sometimes you just need to leap and trust your instincts. For me, it was fitting that the sun went down just as I crossed the border into Arizona on my road trip. But the details of the amazing cross-country road trip will be saved for a future post. For now I want to say that every day I am thankful that I took charge of my life and decided to leave a less-than-perfect situation for something new. Or rather, something familiar, revisited after years of independence, growth, and change, which allows me to see through a new perspective.