Saturday, October 25, 2014


Louisiana is pretty much all swamps. Whilst driving thru the state I got the feeling that I-10 was more bridge than real roadway. I-10 was also fairly boring, but upbeat crazy cajun music called zydeco was playing on the radio and kept things interesting. Chris Marquis was bacheloring it for the month with the Mrs TDY, so he offered to put me up.

First night in town we went into the city. New Orleans is an interesting place. I really enjoyed the music and got to see an impromptu jam session near Jackson Square and one of those jazz parades for a wedding. I also enjoyed the food: beignets, po'boys, crawfish, gumbo, and jambalaya. But I hated Bourbon Street. It was like an even seedier version of the Vegas Strip and it smelled like the gutters were full of vomit and urine. No thanks. We got dinner at a quieter place on Magazine Street. Afterwards I quite literally bumped into CGA classmates Eric Turner and Brian Conrad playing chess on the sidewalk outside of a coffee shop. Small world.

The following day Chris and I took a swamp tour. Our Creole guide Jason was a wealth of knowledge both useful and arcane. I learned that gators cannot be sexed by an external observation and their pronounced epiglottis keeps them from drowning. Best of all I got to hold a baby alligator!

Unless Jurassic Park becomes real, this is pretty much as close as you can come to a dinosaur
My last stop in New Orleans was the exceptionally well done World War II museum. It started out years ago as a "D-Day" museum as a tribute to the amphibious landing craft designed and built in New Orleans that won the day in Normandy and across the Pacific. It has now expanded into the nation's preeminent World War II museum, complete with all sorts of weapons, uniforms, tanks, aircraft, boats, and first hand accounts from numerous veterans. I highly recommend the museum.

Germany 0, America 2. #backtobackworldwarchamps

From New Orleans I drove north, linking up with the Natchez Trace Parkway. While it's a much slower way to get to Nashville, the road is a true "parkway" - lined with trees, grass, cotton fields, and historic waysides. There's not a billboard advertisement or tractor trailer in sight for 440 miles. The only catch is that the speed limit (strictly enforced) is 50mph, but that helps you avoid collisions with the 4.3 million deer along the road.

Nahsville was a great stop. I don't know if I'll ever get a hankering to return to Las Vegas, Austin, or New Orleans. But for live music, good food, and a fun time, I think I'll be back to Nashville. I had dinner at Monell's, a southern style restaurant where the food is served family style, ten to a table. Listened to the three country bands playing on each floor of Tooties, one of the more famous honky-tonks. Breakfast at Loveless Cafe, known for their biscuits, of which they make 7,000 per day (I had 5). I toured the Country Music Hall of Fame but to be honest I didn't know 90% of the artists featured in the exhibits. And I got a milkshake at Elliston's Soda Shop, in business since 1937, before leaving town.

Mammoth Cave National Park, Kentucky, is a short drive from Nashville. I arrived in the afternoon, bought my ticket for a tour the following morning, and then hit the trail to stretch my legs. It's real nice to be back in Appalachia. Don't get me wrong, I LOVED Alaska and the Northwest, but there's something about the smell of the crisp fall air and the crunch of leaves underfoot that makes me feel more at home in these mountains. A loop thru the NPS property on the surface above Mammoth Cave takes you up and down some hills and hollows, along the Green River, and to the origins of the "River Styx" - the place where one of the waterways that has formed Mammoth Cave pops out from underground and empties into the Green River.

Appalachian fall afternoon
River Styx. I wanted to swim in it and become immortal but it was cold and I probably would have forgotten to immerse some critically important body part, like my heel or appendix or something
In the morning I joined my group for a "lantern tour" of Mammoth Cave. What a cool experience! We entered the cave with nothing but a dozen kerosene lanterns and got to see all the cave features by feeble, flickering flame light. Which may sound lame if you are more interested in the scenery but Mammoth has a very rich history and the lantern light really brings it all to life, seeing the cave as the early explorers and visitors did 200 years ago.

Before it became a National Park, the tour guides (often slaves), would allow visitors to sign the cave roof with the sooty smoke from tallow candles
Continuing from Mammoth Cave I stopped in Louisville for a "hot brown," a famous sandwich invented in the city in 1924. It's an open faced turkey sandwich with a rich cream sauce poured overtop, created to satiate late night revelers at the swing dances hosted by the Brown Hotel. I also tried a unique beer - Kentucky Bourbon Ale. The ale is allowed to ferment inside used bourbon barrels, imparting a bit of flavor (and increased alcohol content!). After dinner I found a campsite across the Ohio River in Indiana.

The grand finale of my road trip was a morning in Madison, Indiana. Madison is billed as "the best small town in America" and I think you'd be hard pressed to disagree. Madison was a boomtown in the mid 1850s, building steamboats and ferries for use on the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers. That business went bust, but Madison has somehow managed to keep it's historic charm (instead of a whole bunch of meth). Practically the entire city is now registered as a National Historic District comprised of well preserved Victorian style buildings. The little shops, restaurants, theaters, and the courthouse along flag-draped Main Street look like they've been time machined to 2014 from 1920. And all I could think about is how awesome it would have been to be a kid and go trick-or-treating along the quiet tree lined streets and alleys of the pretty neighborhoods.

Main Street, Madison, Indiana
It was only 4 hours from Madison to my home in West Virginia. I gave a little whoop crossing the "Wild and Wonderful" state line. It's nice to be back in the Mountain State. I'm a little past peak fall colors, but autumn has always been my favorite season. Chel surprised Mom and Dad with a visit from Baltimore, marking the first time the whole family has been together in Cross Lanes since 2009.

So that's it. Five months. 13,000 miles. Eyes on the Arctic, Pacific, and Atlantic Oceans. Glaciers, deserts, redwoods, canyons, mountains, cacti, and caves. It's somewhat difficult to allow myself to unpack after such a long time on the road. I became rather fond of the traveling lifestyle. I sincerely appreciate all the terrific hospitality of friends and family along the way. I thank everyone for keeping tabs on the blog.

I've come to really enjoy capturing my travels in this format, as much for my own sake as a tool to help share with others. You can expect a couple more posts: I was thinking about writing up a bit of an "after action report" to cover how I lived on the road with tips for any fellow minded adventurers  on gear, food, logistics, and living on the cheap. And between family time and hunting trips with the old man (if I shoot anything cool I'll put up a picture) I've got some travels to the DC area and Florida planned for the winter. Keep in touch.

5 months and 13,000 miles of home (things are a bit more organized now than they were in May) 

Sunday, October 19, 2014


I didn't think Texas had any real mountains at all, but right there across the border from Carlsbad Caverns was Guadalupe Mountains National Park, dominated by Guadalupe Peak at almost 9000 ft. I probably should have climbed Guadalupe Peak like everyone else in the park and thus been able to say I've reached the highest place in Texas, but instead I took a solitary, low key backpacking trip up along McKitrick Ridge to explore more of the backcountry. Again I found myself surprised (which I shouldn't by now) of the drastically increased forest cover as one climbs in elevation. There was a nice oak and maple forest at 8000 ft, populated by tree species found no where else for hundreds of miles around. Migrating birds visited McKitrick Canyon for the perennial water source and pooped out the seeds along the way. Cool.

McKitrick Canyon
Horny lizard
South of the Guadalupe Mountains lies Big Bend National Park, a place I've wanted to see for quite some time. I even ended up staying an extra unplanned night so I could fit everything in. I started my Big Bend experience by taking advantage of their "primitive roadside camping" policy. There are a number of dirt roads you can drive along and just pull off and camp. Which is similar to what you can do in any National Forest or on BLM land, but its pretty rare to be able to so in a National Park. Of course you do need a permit to do so, and the pullouts are designated on the map (it still is NPS after all). But it's cheaper than their developed campgrounds. #winning #quitmy80Kjob #onabudget

My second day in Big Bend I backpacked the famous South Rim loop. The South Rim of the Chisos Mountain Basin drops 2000 ft down sheer cliffs teeming with peregrine falcons to the desert floor and the Rio Grande River below. The best backpacking campsites are perched along the rim - great views but also great amounts of wind. Luckily my bivy sack has a low profile and no loose fabric. A flapping tent is one of the few things that can actually keep me up - to me it's the mountain man equivalent of nails on a chalkboard.

The Chisos Mountains
The South Rim
Sunset from South Rim
Day three found me finishing the South Rim Loop with a detour up Emory Peak, the highest in Big Bend. There is a radio tower on the summit that detracts a little from the wilderness experience, but the side hike finishes with a very fun 40ft rock scramble to the top. I met a nice couple from Austin: they gave me numerous recommendations for my planned stop and in return I helped show them the easiest route back down. Apparently not everyone thought the scrambling was as fun as I did.

Chisos Basin from Emory Peak
Mule deer use the trail too
On my final day in Big Bend I got an early morning start to climb Casa Grande. There's no trail, nor did I have any real information on the peak, but it looms impressively over the Chisos Basin Campground and I thought I'd give it a shot. Many of my mountain climbing adventures have begun that way - I see a peak that looks appealing on another hike or climb and decide to go for it later on. Well, I did not feel very welcome at "The Big House." The mesas got too steep for me to comfortable climb without a rope and I lost count after getting stabbed in the leg half a dozen times by prickly pear cactus as I crossed the trail less desert terrain. Bleeding from the big thick cactus spines and itching from those tiny hairlike ones that are hard to see and remove, I returned to my truck. Luna Peak was still worse though...

Casa Grande. Su casa es no mi casa. 
With the rest of the day at hand I made the scenic drive out the Ross Maxwell Road to see more of the park. I hiked along the Santa Elena Canyon of the Rio Grande. Try as I might, I couldn't get any of the ten American rocks I threw to commit an illegal border crossing into Mexico. It's a big river.

Santa Elena Canyon of the Rio Grande
It took every bit of my manly courage to take this photo
Roadrunner. Beep-beep! 
Big Bend was my last big wilderness adventure of the road trip. After Big Bend my plans mostly included urban adventures with some day trips thrown in. First of the cities to see was San Antonio and the infamous Alamo.

The Alamo is TINY and appears even smaller in its urban setting surrounded by skyscrapers. However, during the tour you learn that only the chapel building - what everyone thinks of when they think "Alamo" - of the historic mission is still standing. The original mission was a large walled complex with additional buildings and barracks to house first the monks, then the heroes of Texas liberty. The battle for the Alamo was pretty much "300" with cowboy hats and Bowie knives. Brave men all.

San Antonio is also home to a number of less famous, but better preserved Spanish missions, protected in a National Park currently in the running for UNESCO World Heritage Site recognition. My favorite was Mission San Jose. I was the first person to visit for the day and enjoyed the peace and quiet of the mission in the early morning hours. Until a bus showed up about 15 minutes later.

For dinner I went down to the San Antonio Riverwalk, a very forward thinking public works project of the Depression Era. The San Antonio River kept flooding the town; when they decided to put in dams and levees upstream they also decided to landscape and develop the new river course thru town. Today the Riverwalk is like an American Venice-  home to a quaint waterway lined with cafes and restaurants, crossed by pedestrian bridges, and traveled by small motor barges filled with tourists. I enjoyed fresh guacamole (prepared tableside) and a prickly pear margarita (it was purple). I much prefer my prickly pear in my stomach instead of in my leg.

Austin was up next. Armed with the recommendations from the top of Emory Peak I set off to explore the city. The Capitol building is pretty, but I didn't like the color. It's supposed to be a nice red granite, but in the light I had that evening it looked poop-brown. I tried Texas chili. Meh. I'll probably catch some flak from any Texas friends (hi Andi!) but I prefer beans in my chili. I did enjoy my brisket from the Iron Works BBQ. And when there are signed pictures of the wall of President Obama, President Bush, Neil Patrick Harris, and the 7 foot tall guy who played Chewbacca, you know you are in the right place! I also saw the Whiskey Sisters, a local country band, at one of the great Austin live music venues.

My last day in Texas was spent in the Houston area. I am a total space dork and filled my day with activities at the Johnson Space Center for the entire 7 hours they were open from 10-5. The pictures below will illustrate the awesomeness that is the JSC.

An actual Project Mercury capsule flown in space and recovered from the Pacific Ocean. About half the size of a smart car. 
The actual Apollo 17 capsule, recovered from the Pacific Ocean. 3 guys, 8 days, about the size of my pickup. Damn. 

Apollo 17 EVA (extravehicular activity) suit brought back from the moon
Apollo 17 lunar rover recovered from the surface of the moon. 
Where the magic happened - Mission Control for Apollo Project. Now a National Historic Landmark. Current space missions are directed from elsewhere in the building. 
A Saturn V launch vehicle. I can't convey the size without setting myself up for a "that's what she said" joke of the century. But it's really big. 
Space toilet! (from the shuttle). Space toilets use vacuum suction to keep turds from floating away in zero g. 
Any of my Coastie friends recognize the man, second from right, with the exquisite mustache?
Get a room you guys! The space shuttle transportation system and a future JSC exhibit. 
That evening I continued east to Galveston and spent the night on the Gulf Coast. I enjoyed reflecting on the road trip thus far, realizing that I have gone from the rivers of the Arctic Circle to the mountains of the Northwest to the forests of California to the canyons of Utah and across the desert of Texas to see my third ocean in five months! On to NOLA!

** UPDATE: the Apollo moon rover wasn't really recovered. That's a training one used on Earth. It was an attempt at a super space dork joke that nobody got but me. They had to leave a lot of gear on the moon to make room for the moon rocks they brought back. I don't want to be blamed for misinformation

Monday, October 13, 2014

New Mexico

Leaving the Grand Canyon, I made a quick stop at Petrified Forest National Park. Cool, but rock solid wood can only captivate for so long. The big bummer came when I realized that camping was not allowed in Petrified Forest NP - they lock the roads down at night to keep wood thieves away. So my foray into New Mexico happened a day earlier than planned - there were no camping options until Gallup.

But what an option it turned out to be! The USA RV Park was just about the most patriotic place I've ever been. The proprietor, John, was super helpful and friendly, even more so when he found out I was a vet. John kept the RV Park spotless, I probably could have ran my toothbrush around the toilet bowl and used it with no ill effect. Anyways, USA RV Park in Gallup - if you are in the area, check it out. Active Duty Military stays for free if any of y'all have a cross country PCS in the future.

In the morning, on John's recommendation, I had breakfast at the El Rancho Hotel, my first big stop in my quest for Historic Route 66 authenticity. El Rancho has served the likes of Humphrey Bogart, Audrey Hepburn, and Ronald Regan (before he was President). They've been serving up their "Bunkhouse Special" - 2 hotcakes, 1 egg, meat, biscuit, and coffee - since 1937.

El Rancho lobby
Interstate 40 has supplanted Historic Route 66. Except that I-40 bypasses all the towns in the name of saving 3.2 minutes of your precious time, and therefore only along the main streets of the nearby towns can you really drive on the old Route 66. For a complete history of this phenomenon, please watch the movie "Cars."

I got my kicks...
Albuquerque's "Central Avenue" is still in the style of old 66. 18 miles of diners, neon, motels, and tacky signs. I particularly liked the Frontier Restaurant's burritos and the 66 Diner's "pileup." Come to think of it, I really enjoyed all the food in New Mexico, especially the tendency to cover everything from eggs to burgers to burritos to pizza to ice cream (not kidding - in delicious green chili sauce. I even took to making my PB&Js with tortillas, the better to appear like a local.

I purposely timed my arrival in Albuquerque to coincide with the International Balloon Fiesta. And what a spectacle that was. Despite my 0400 reveille, I missed the "mass ascension" of 500+ balloons in the morning when it was cancelled due to high winds. But I made up for my disappointment later that evening when I returned for a "balloon glow." They keep the balloons tethered to the ground, but the fill them up and use their giant propane torches like hundreds of oversized candles in the night. It's really beautiful.


Just outside of Albuquerque, and totally unexpected, I came across Petroglyph National Monument. This little gem is quite literally in the suburbs of town (don't come here for the solitude!) but preserves over 800 images on the rock. I figure myself to be pretty knowledgable on our National Park System, yet I was blown away by the fact that Petroglyph National Monument even existed, especially when contrasted with the quantity and the quality of the glyphs. Some of my favorites below:

I called this one "turtle man." Turtles play an important role in Native American creation stories
Heading south out of Albuquerque I stopped in Roswell. The town is much bigger than I thought it was going to be. And the UFO museum was much lamer than I thought it was going to be. The International UFO Museum is big on conspiracy and government coverups but light on hard facts and evidence. Sensational newspaper articles and signed "witness testimony" make up all of the exhibits. Some of the arguments for the UFOs are compelling, but c'mon, give me a piece of a spaceship or an alien skull recovered from the desert and preserved in formaldehyde or something! Is that too much to ask?

However, in the interest of fairness, I would like to point out that I had my own UFO encounter shortly after leaving Roswell. So maybe there is something to be said for all that...

Look 1/3 to 2/5 the way into the sky above the telephone pole
UFO or Government weather balloon coverup? You decide 
Carlsbad Caverns was my final stop in New Mexico. The caverns were awesome, preserving some of the largest limestone features in the western hemisphere. Most impressive were the bats. Each night 400,000 bats fly out of the cave entrance. NPS doesn't permit any cameras or electronic devices during the flights (they would disturb the bats) so I don't have any photos, but it was a memorable experience nonetheless. The bats came out just after sunset, spiraling upwards in a helix and then making their way across the desert to the south, backlit by a full moon. Just as cool, I woke up early the following morning to catch the last bats return to the cave for the day. They would tuck their wings and dive-bomb into the cave at 30mph, making little whizzing sounds as they did so. And in the morning I had the place to myself, as opposed to the nightly show which attracts a hundred people or so.

I lucked out and was able to tag along on an "adventure tour" of the cave, taking the place of someone who had dropped out they day before. It was fun to do some real spelunking; I've not gotten the chance to do any since Boy Scouts. We had to pass obstacles such as "The Pinch" and "Castration Rock." I'm happy to report that I didn't get stuck and I brought back everything I started with.

The "pinch"

The Devil's Pipe-organ
The Great Phallus
Dr Evil and Mini Me
Jabba the Hut
The Predator
*All the names of the cave features I made up myself. I have no idea what they are called.