Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Our trip across the USA Day 5!

Well we are finally here! The last day turned out to be an eventful one- the driving was very different and so was the weather at the end. Its strange to think that we arrived the day before we were supposed to leave :-)

So from the beginning...
We left Needles CA back on I40 into the Mojave Desert. Picture some sand but largely rolling hills and miles of desert plants- low lying due to the wind, some cacti and Joshua trees. We found at later that Joshua trees only grow in the Mojave desert- (they look like large Yucca plants!!) As you can imagine there is nothing but desert for as far as you can see- very beautiful and calm, with just one road running through it and the occasional pullover area. Amazingly, we had cell phone coverage the whole way, and a local radio station that told us of the conditions for both road and weather too. Talking of cell phones, I have a Sprint phone and I think I've had coverage just about all the way- one or two small dead spots- I know because the GPS on the phone relies on having a signal to be able to get accurate directions and we rarely have not had the GPS working- pretty stunning really.

We also drove past one very black looking area, which showed a low lying peak near the center- it was marked on the map as the Pisgah Crater, and we later found out that it is an old but still active volcano that last erupted 2000 years ago, and what we were seeing was the basalt. Apparently time and natural erosion has eroded the peak of it- quite fascinating- a geologist would have a great time doing this trip. It is also only one of many active volcanoes along that string of mountains.

The Mojave desert was almost done by the end of I40- strange not to be following it anymore. By the way, I40 is also designated as the Purple Heart Trail in many states and they hope to make the full length that way- as a tribute to fallen American soldiers.

Then we headed on CA 182 towards the beginning of the Tehachapi Pass which is at the southern end of the Sierra Nevada mountains. First we saw low flying aeroplanes, which should have given us the clue that we were close to Edwards air force base (for the Brits, it is a air force testing ground). The planes were dark and flying very fast..

Then we saw a huge number of air turbines covering the mountains in the distance- we found out later (thank goodness for the internet!) that it is one of the largest wind farms in the states, and has been there since the early 80's - the turbines have obviously been updated since but they were originally put there as a result of the energy crisis at that time.

Then we hit the pass itself which is at 3793 ft and a very long downhill roller coaster ride towards the San Joaquin Valley. It was like driving in Switzerland, or the Welsh mountains- beautiful green rolling hills covered in grass with only a few trees- steep roads curving around and down the mountain. Wow! Gorgeous but took some concentrating!

Finally you hit the very flat valley loaded with fruit trees in blossom, and orange trees with fallen fruit - probably as a result of the recent freeze which hit the southern US recently. The driving again was also a different kettle of fish- the difference between long distance drivers, taking it easy and moving in and out of lanes only to pass, to aggressive local drivers, all trying to get somewhere fast- and a lot more of them. It was a bit of a shock after four days of very easy driving. Then to top it off, it started to rain the closer we got towards our destination. We did still manage to cheer when we saw our first sign for San Jose! You have to leave Interstate 5 and drive over the hills to get on 101 towards San Jose, so another roller coaster ride up and then down. It was hard to drive past Morgan Hill, which is where our new apartment is, to go to Dick's corporate apartment. We finally got there at 4:30 pm having driven a total of 2580 miles!

Our trip across the USA Day 4

Yayyyyy!!! We are in California! Admittedly, only just inside, in a place call Needles- the first town across the state line on I40. We are still a long way south of where we will end up -about 450 miles north of here, but it feels good to be here, and in the same time zone as Dick. He has had a very bureaucratic weekend in terms of the new apartment, so he'll be glad to see us too. We've now done 2050 miles, and I can truthfully say that its been fun and not hard at all- the first day was definitely the hardest, but largely because of the early start after a very late night and the stress and sadness of leaving the house. It was also the longest day in terms of distance. However, today was almost 550 miles too, and didn't feel anywhere near as long. Maybe we are just getting used to it!

We left Albuquerque early this morning- we haven't really caught up with all the changes in time zones and so we are still tired early and awake early. As I said before, the car is filthy, and so I pulled into a petrol station to clean all the windows (I am being a good girl and checking the car over as much as I can every day before I leave). Trouble was, it was 24 degrees F and although there was no frost on the car because it it dry there, as soon as the water provided in the petrol station (obviously not screen wash) was brushed onto the windows, it froze on the car! Luckily the scraper side of the brush got the ice off.. Albuquerque has the prettiest bridges we have seen- all decorated in a south western style- certainly makes the roads more interesting.

The roads were still quiet, mainly just trucks up bright and early, so again the driving was easy. The speed limit has been 75 mph for the most part and down to 65 whilst near towns. I've kept at a max of 80 mph as the car is fully loaded and it seems to be comfortable at that speed. You get to see a long way ahead almost all of the time so its easy to anticipate what is coming up. The trucks stay at a constant 65-70 mph and the cars at a similar speed to me- it's rare to see anyone blasting down the outside lane. Everyone seems to be doing long distances and just staying at constant speeds. Therefore we have also seen hardly any police- maybe one or two and they were sitting near towns in the center meridian watching the traffic.
There have also been weigh stations for the trucks all along the route, but most of them seem to be closed, although we did see one truck that missed an open one and we wondered what will happen to him.

Today the views started off pretty flat and moonscape like- very calming but not very exciting. You may wonder how we keep ourselves entertained. I had loaded my Ipod up with some books, however with the windows kept cracked open at the back to keep Pepper cool, it gets a bit noisy in the car if the winds are strong, and with the wide open landscapes, the winds have been strong more often than not. Therefore we tune into local radio stations, and you can imagine that the large majority of them are country and western, but they are very easy listening. When there are no stations (which isn't very often thank goodness), we amuse ourselves by trying to remember all the songs related to the place names on our trip. There is normally other things to see- today there were many roadside signs advertising upcoming attractions- largely at the numerous Indian reservations in new Mexico. Many of them are very funny, so we chuckle our way down the road, for example how about 50% off meteorites? Every chief has his own store which is always better than the previous one. I wish I could remember more of the ones we have laughed at..

Soon the landscape became amazing as we saw the beginnings of Red Rock Canyon- spectacular red colors depending how the sun hit it. Mary could not put her camera down, especially when the Santa Fe railway line rolled into view with what seemed like a constant stream of trains traveling along it. Most had at least three engines, and pulled 100-150 carriages- yes that was not a mistype, Mary has tried to count them several times and has lost count after 100. They look very majestic chugging along in the foreground with the red in the background. Today it was combined with a smattering of snow too- very picturesque- and cold! We were at an elevation of about 5000 feet for most of the day, so it didn't really warm up much, and we saw snow on the ground until leaving Arizona and dropping elevation much later in the day. I kept thinking we were going down, but it never seemed to happen and it became the joke of the day every time we climbed yet another hill to only go back down it again.

This morning we stopped at Gallup in New Mexico, at a famous restaurant called Earl's on the old route 66- the people there were fascinating and the food was great. A real mix of American Indians- Navajo in particular, and Mexicans, as well as American and every mix in between. I've also never eaten chips and salsa for breakfast before!

A little later we crossed into Arizona- our 9th state so far! and decided to take the side trip into the Petrified Forest National Park- a combination of Death Valley and the Grand Canyon rolled into one- with the petrified wood too. We found out Petrified wood is as a result of a mix of silt, mud and volcanic ash burying the logs- they are beautiful- different colored crystals depending on the minerals found nearby. We really enjoyed our detour, and if you ever get this way, its worth the side trip.

Back on the road, we 'awed and aahed' at the beautiful colors in the landscape of Arizona and reminisced about our separate trips to the Grand Canyon which we passed by but did not revisit.

Finally we did start to go down, and saw our first sign for Los Angeles- 497 miles away, a number which dropped to 200 by the time we crossed into California. We both cheered loudly as we crossed. Soon after you cross the state line, they stop every vehicle and ask you where you've come from and whether you are carrying any fruit or veg or plants. They were surprised at our reply of Georgia,' -the guard sang 'Georgia on my mind' whilst surreptitiously scanning the car, but it was also obvious we didn't have anything on the forbidden list as Dick had pre-warned us.

For those of you concerned about Pepper, she has really got into the swing of things, and is less concerned about the strange routine. Tonight she not only wandered out the room and explored the very quiet car park, but also ate a full bowl of food- the first time she has done that in a couple of weeks. Dick thinks it is because we are more relaxed too, knowing we are almost there and she feels that too. I can't wait to see the two of them reunited- I think it will do her good to see a familiar face.

Tomorrow we plan to head north and off I40 towards Pasa Robles, so we can finish our trip on state route 101 and not the interstate. We'll head to Dick's corporate apartment and meet him there when he gets in. I'm not sure I'll get to write again straightaway or not but I'll try to keep you posted about our first few days settling in.

Our trip across the USA Day 3

Firstly let me explain to those of you who don't know, why we left earlier than originally planned (we were not supposed to be going until next Tuesday 27th). We planned our trip last weekend and made most of the final arrangements and suddenly realized that all we were waiting for was for Tuesday 27th to arrive, so it seemed logical to leave early, and be with Dick sooner. As you can imagine, he wholeheartedly agreed. Besides, Mary kept wanting to go shopping, and I knew if she did, we'd never fit it all in the car ;-) So she is now eagerly waiting to explore and shop in California instead. She is also addicted to Wal-Mart, and is getting slightly worried as we only saw 2 Wal-Mart trucks today!

Obviously we made it through the tornado watch last night- it barely rained even. However.... we left to bright sunshine and headed back on Interstate 40. It's funny because we have started to recognize some of the trucks and even cars who are doing a long trip. There seems to be very little tourist traffic at this time of year- every seems to be going somewhere fully loaded. Almost everyone is driving very calmly and courteously. It is only a two lane interstate in most areas, so you have to pass and then get back onto the inside lane. It is very easy driving- especially on cruise control- I just have to point the car in the right direction :-) It is pretty quiet really, so not stressful at all normally. Anyway, the winds were quite strong this morning and there seemed to be very dark clouds way ahead in the distance. We passed what claimed to be the largest cross in the western hemisphere just in the middle of nowhere with a tourist stop next to it.

Then we passed into Texas and the fun started! It was very barren and you could see for miles in all directions- just tumble weed blowing across our path in the strong wind. The dark clouds turned to some kind of rain, which turned into sleet or small hail- not tornado related, just cold weather related. The closer we got to Amarillo, the more sleety it became. Luckily the roads were fine- the wind was just blowing it everywhere. Visibility was also still fine- it was just noisy. So we decided to stop for breakfast at IHOP- the pancake house. We had totally forgotten that it was Saturday, and it was very busy. However, after a stomach warming hot breakfast, we set out into light snow!! Again, it was not settling, just blowing everywhere- Mary couldn't believe it, and swore she wouldn't tell anyone at home as she had told everyone she was coming out it here for the warm weather :-) Eventually we were clear and although it was still windy , the sun came back out. We'd been wondering why the other cars on the road looked so dirty until we stopped at a rest stop and realized how dirty ours had become. This particular rest stop in Texas will forever stay in my mind as the coldest and windy-est one ever. It was for some reason located right on top of a hill (the nearer to New Mexico you get, the more hilly it becomes). As you drove up, it warned of snakes! There was no chance they would be around as it was so cold. I could barely stand up but Pepper seemed to love it- she stood there with her nose in the air, sniffing all the new smells while I froze. Mary scooted to the loos and came back with tales of the signs over the doors which denoted that the bathrooms were also tornado shelters! The building was built into the hillside- it was very pretty, with the lone star in the architecture all around it, but boy was it cold. The landscape was still barren but becoming more like it is in Arizona, with small craters like mini Grand Canyons but nothing much else.

Time wise we were doing really well until the traffic came to a dead stop not long before the new Mexico state line. We had no idea what was going on, although we did see some real idiots very impatient of waiting who crossed the area on the side of the interstate to join the old route 66 which runs alongside it in some places. We kept thinking that someone would get stuck as it was a deep water run off area, or cause another accident. It seems the police were already diverting traffic behind us as there was a sudden increase in traffic on the side road. I asked the truck driver behind us what was going on and he said it was an accident in the construction area ahead. We never saw anything except a burnt upside down car several miles later, which may not have been the incident. We sat for about 45 minutes in total and then suddenly it all stated moving. So far, we haven't seen any other problems in 1500 miles. We have however seen a lot more construction happening on the interstate itself, which means it goes down to one lane which does slow you down. In this case, it didn't really matter as we had just gained another hour by crossing into Mountain time.

The terrain started to become very hilly, we drove up and down very long hills with not much else around, except slow trucks trying to get up the hills. We too kept a very steady pace and have done all the way. Petrol/gas prices have increased slightly from around $2.10 a gallon to $2.30 except over these hills (no idea what they are called) where it was $2.65 due to the inaccessibility of the area. Finally we began to go down hill again and could see miles ahead on the very straight interstate.

There is a basin just before Albuquerque which seems to be the bottom, but then suddenly you have to drive down a very steep long road which feels like you are driving down a mountain, zigzagging through steep cut away areas where you can there would be a danger of rock falls. I forgot to mention that there was still pockets of snow on the ground all the way from Amarillo- unfortunately it is still no warmer- the forecast is for 25 degrees Fahrenheit tonight.

Some of you have suggested other places we can stop- by the time we get to our evening destination, we are tired and just happy to get out of the car- Pepper especially, and I don't want to leave her in a strange room by herself, so we have not done much exploring. This isn't really a sightseeing tour, we'll do that another time hopefully. Right now we are focused on achieving our goal of 500 miles a day, and now we are already over half way :-)

Trip across the USA Day 1 and 2

This is a copy of the email that I sent whilst traveling across the USA from Berkeley Lake GA to San Jose CA...

Just thought I'd tell you a little of what we've seen and experienced on our travels so far :-) In case you don't know, we (Mary- Dick's mum and I) are traveling in a Honda Accord Wagon (estate) with a very full back seat (largely clothes and bedding vacuum packed in Space bags) and Pepper, our 13-14 year old collie-lab.

We left Berkeley Lake on Thursday 22nd February about 5.45 am in order to beat the rush hour traffic. Luckily we got on Interstate 20 very easily and headed towards Birmingham, Alabama. The roads were very busy to start with but the traffic thinned out the further away we got away from the big cities. As you can imagine, a lot of the traffic is huge trucks- especially the big parcel companies like UPS and FedEx, however, much to our amusement we've also been counting WalMart trucks and saw 12 alone yesterday! We also saw 5 trailer (mobile) homes being transported but decided not to take one to California, though it might be a bit cheaper!

We've been following printed Google maps (of course), a road map of the USA and the GPS on my phone. Dick always says, 'trust the GPS' however, we were glad we didn't just the other side of Birmingham, when it tried to send us to Huntsville, AL because that was the only way we would stay on the interstate. So we had to do a scenic detour which was rather nice as we saw more of the countryside but it took a bit longer. Mary is doing a great job at map reading! It is surprising how much we are seeing from the interstate though. Since then, the GPS has been very well behaved :-) and we have been glad of it (for the geeks among you, it is a service called 'Telinav' - available for some mobile phones)

After Birmingham, we headed to Tupelo, Mississippi, the birthplace of Elvis, and saw his tiny home, and stopped for lunch. Then it was off towards Memphis, Tennessee. The roads around Memphis were not only in terrible condition, but very busy. The interstate is not completed around Memphis, so you have to join the local traffic on very narrow lanes with thundering trucks alongside you- interesting! Memphis looked very poor and run down- sad really.

Lastly we headed into Arkansas to Little Rock (Home of Bill Clinton!), having been in 5 states in one day! By this time we were very tired as it had been such an early start, and we'd traveled 585 miles. Mary was delighted to find out that the Holiday Inn had a restaurant and therefore room service, so we didn't have to go out anywhere. All of us were fast asleep by 8 pm - Georgia time. We have already moved from the Eastern time zone into the central time zone and have therefore gained an hour. We'll move to Mountain time again tomorrow once we reach New Mexico.

For those of you concerned about the distances we are travelling, we stop approximately every hour an a half to two hours at the many 'rest-stops' on the interstate- a chance to stretch the legs, and walk Pepper. She is coping with the trip very well- she is very concerned about seeing where I am at all times so it does not take much to persuade her to get back in the car- and the dried chicken treats also help! She has water and food in her bowls wedged in near her and helps herself as she needs it. She seems to sleep most of the time. I put 'sticky shades' on all the windows in the back of the car, so she doesn't get any sun shining directly on her. She is doing really well, she's just a little confused, but I'm sure she'll be delighted when she sees Dick at the other end. The 'rest-stops' themselves for those of you who don't know, are very well resourced. They have free coffee and soft drinks, leaflets about local attractions, and very friendly and helpful staff. Obviously there are also 'restrooms' and also pet walking areas, which Pepper sniffs her way slowly through, so you can imagine, they are not just 5 minute stops!

We've feel like we've traveled across England- having travelled through or past the towns of London, Dover, Conway, Victoria, Oxford, and through Germany- (Bremen, Stuttgart)- Just of few of the names we have recognized along the way. Of course there are also many we can only guess at the pronunciation- especially the American Indian names across Oklahoma.

This morning, we were awake bright and early after a wonderful restful sleep, and after walking Pepper we headed out back onto Interstate 40- we will travel about 1800 miles on this interstate alone! Today we drove about 120 miles before breakfast at Waffle House in Alma, Arkansas, which according to their signs, is the spinach capital of the world! Wonder how they are doing after the recent spinach scares? We also seen signs describing 'Fabulous' Arkansas wine- has anyone ever tasted Arkansas wine? I didn't know there were vineyards here!

We have also seen number plates on cars from Florida to Michigan. We are getting a geography lesson on the way- especially for the mid US states which neither of us are too sure of the location of, so we keep having to look up where they are- I thought Michigan was a lot further north!

Once we crossed into Oklahoma, we saw all kinds of landscapes- huge lakes and reservoirs to start with and then the hills of the bottom of the Ozarks. Finally into tornado alley and the very windy flat basins where you can see for miles. The trees all seem to be bent to one side from the constant wind. There is a huge wind farm at Weatherford- with wind turbines in every direction- they look very graceful from a distance. In fact, I just found on Wikipedia that Oklahoma has the most diverse terrain in the USA according to the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) and I can well believe it. We also saw our first small oil pumps- Mary calls them nodding donkeys :-)

We can also see why Oklahoma is called 'Native America' with all the reservations and American Indian heritage. We stopped in Oklahoma City to visit the 'National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum' and saw some fabulous art, artifacts and even a circa 1900 Western Cattle town. It was very interesting and we could have spent the day there, but we had to drive on. By the way, it is also home to the famous original 'End of The trail' statue' -stunningly sad.

We pressed on to a small city called Elk City right on the edge of Oklahoma with clouds forming ominously.. true enough, we are in tornado alley, and we arrived to discover we are under a tornado watch- they were not overly concerned at the front desk though, and told us they would wake us if a tornado warning was issued. Mary was concerned at first but is sleeping like a baby (as is Pepper) as I type!

Today we have only driven 450 miles, but I'm also ready to sleep now. Amarillo, Texas, and Albuquerque, New Mexico tomorrow!!


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