Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Travels with Carly

For the past four years, I have driven from my home in Arizona to Minnesota to visit family and friends. It's a three-day, two-night drive through the middle of our country, and I see an awful lot of flat land. I generally go in the fall, usually October. This year, I scheduled my trip for November due to various reasons. It's a month later than when I normally take to the road, and conditions are different. Weather is riskier (no one wants to be caught in a blizzard on the Great Plains) and it's colder. That means no leisurely lunch breaks at rest areas and dog "potty" breaks are fast and furious.

If the weather cooperates, it's a fantastic trip. I load my Itouch with audiobooks, music, and podcasts (NPR's "Wait Wait Don't Tell Me" is a favorite). I have three days to relax, bond with my dog, and anticipate seeing Mom, Dad, brothers Rick, Jeff, their kids, their kids' kids, my college girlfriends, and who knows who else--someone always pops out of the woodwork from my youth. I also get a chance to see my dear friend Ellen, in Kansas. I spend one of my travel nights with her on the way, and two nights with her on the return trip, spending an extra day seeing her world, shopping, hitting yarn and thrift stores, and having a great time.

I also like to drive because I can pack whatever I want, I'm not relegated to one suitcase. Good thing! I usually have Christmas presents (heavy canned goods, anyone???), plus there's the mandatory multiple knitting projects, my work laptop for keeping on top of work projects, and stuff for the dog, of course. Bedding, blankets for covering other people's sofas, food, treats, toys, chewies, poop bags, more treats, water, dishes, etc. etc. etc. Here's what went into my car on November 6:

Leaving Arizona: New Mexico "Badlands" and Texas Shortgrass Prairie

This year, I was a bit nervous to drive across country in November. My fears were justified when I woke up to this the morning I left:

By the time I left, this snowstorm was moving east rapidly from the north-central part of Arizona. Interstate 17 south of Flagstaff had been shut down. Interstate 40 surrounding Flagstaff was having problems. And it was moving in my direction. I grabbed a quick breakfast and got out the door just as the flakes were really starting to come down. Bruce said that I would likely get out of the whole system quickly and be ahead of it, so don't worry. I did, though, but I should've listened to my husband. After a 15-minute drive to Show Low, and then heading east on Hwy. 60, it was only a few minutes until the clouds parted, the angels sang, and all was well with the world:

Tune up the angel's choir: Hallelujah! Sun!!
Relief. I could now start in on my chosen audiobook, selected specifically for this roadtrip: "Thereby Hangs A Tail: A Chet and Bernie Mystery." Chet and Bernie run a detective agency; Bernie is the detective, and Chet is his dog. The story is written by Chet. Even Carly paid attention for the first bit.

Our first major milestone was getting to El Malpais National Conservation Area, probably the most scenic spot along the entire route. This landscape of weathered sandstone and black volcanic rock with spindly trees growing out of it is in fact a national public recreation area. The area's Visitor Center also has the first public restroom on the journey, so it is a must-do stop. The Visitor Center has a little nature trail where Carly also has a chance to deploy her morning's treats, if you know what I mean. A few photos of El Malpais:
Sandstone cliffs

Black volcanic rocks with plants figuring out
a way to survive; amazing stuff.

"The Window,"an arch in the making

Well, the most scenic area on the route is left behind after the first 3-hour leg of the journey. Flat land ahead. That's OK, though, because when I return home weeks later, when I get to El Malpais, I know I only have three hours driving left.

I pass through Albuquerque on Interstate 40. ABQ is a very cool city located in the Rio Grand River valley under the Sandia Mountains. If I had the time, I'd make a stop, but I have to make it to Dalhart, TX by dark. So I forge on ahead, through Santa Rosa, and then Tucumcari, where I get off the interstate onto the two-lane Hwy. 54. I will be on Hwy. 54 for about two hours on Day 1 and almost all day minus an hour or so on Day 2. I make it to Dalhart, TX on schedule, and visit another must-stop in downtown Dalhart just prior to reaching the Super 8 (which takes dogs). This stop is just a small park, but it's a nice little walk for Carly prior to being holed up in a hotel room. It also has this garden that is managed by the Dalhart gardening club who call themselves the "Petal Pushers." It is too cute to pass up:

Not the best time of year to see it in full bloom,
but it looks well-tended and loved.
I don't care how good your dog might be, and mine is pretty good, but nights in hotels when you have a dog are generally nights where you don't sleep very well. Little growls that wake you up when someone walks down the hall, schlepping the collar and leash on the dog, and shoes, hat, coat, and mittens on me when the dog needs to go out, all that makes for an uneasy night.

It Keeps Raining

But the sun rises as it always does. At least it's supposed to, unless it's raining out. And, alas, I awoke to rain for my second day on the road:

Rats. And so it went, all day long:

Rain is better than snow, though. I repeated that to myself, and Carly, often that day. So Day 2 I drive from Dalhart to Emporia, Kansas (Ellen's house), pretty much on this two-lane highway through the upper corner of Texas, the short "stick" part of Oklahoma, and western/central Kansas. The scenery looks like this the entire reach of this highway:

Even "Thereby Hangs a Tail" ceases to interest Carly. She soon becomes a slug:

I wish I could nap while driving...

To stay awake, I have a favorite stopping point in Pratt, Kansas, which I generally arrive around lunchtime on Day 2. I found a hidden gem of a town park two years ago. It's a large park with your typical ballfield or two, but what makes this park a wonderful stopping place is its large expanse of an open grassy area interspersed with various trees such as large oaks, maples, and some sort of cedar (introduced??) that on Day 2 in the rain glowed a brilliant rust. I lucked out and arrived during a period of about 30 minutes when the rain stopped, and managed to get a decent walk in for Carly. After that, it started to rain again, so I grabbed my lunch and ate in the car.

The Flint Hills

I finally reach Witchita, and take off onto the Interstate 35 tollroad, a very nice, clean highway. About an hour to go to reach Emporia and Ellen! Almost right away after Witchita, I enter the Flint Hills region of Kansas. The Flint Hills (more information can be found here) are what National Geographic describes as "the last great swath of tallgrass prairie in the nation." It is a sublime, beautiful landscape; rolling hills that stretch for what appears to be miles. In the fall, the grass turns various hues of gold and rust, with some remaining greenery interspersed. I was able to shoot a few pictures through the rain:

After spending the night catching up with Ellen, eating Chinese food, and settling Carly onto Ellen's sofa, all while the rain continues to come down, we wake up to a beautiful, clear blue sky. Whew. The day is looking bright, especially after our morning Starbucks visit. I am now driving on Interstate 35 all the way to Austin, MN, an hour away from home. The drive takes me through what I consider the true Midwest. Kansas, Kansas City, a bit of Missouri, Iowa, and southern Minnesota.

Tricky, Tricky Iowa

It was sunny; not a cloud in the sky. It was cold, though, too, which continued to minimize opportunities to enjoy pretty rest stops. The storm that followed me on Day 2 passed through and dumped a bit of snow in Iowa, but no big deal to me. I had sun the entire day. I was excited; last day on the road, I'll be seeing my parents at the end of this day, Chet and Bernie's mystery was getting interesting, and weather conditions were positive. Plus, I was in the Midwest, the region of "really really nice people." My original 'hood; I was raised in the land of "Minnesota Nice."

The epitome of my stereotype is represented in Iowa; or so I thought. Hah. Here is a heads-up when you travel through Iowa: Buy super unleaded gas. Why? Well, here we go.

I needed gas south of Des Moines. An "Iowa Welcome Center" appeared on the horizon, and there was one of those large, really tall gas station signs that read "$3.31/gal," which was the going rate at the time, so I pulled over. Along with gas, there was this Amish gift shop (the nicest of the nice midwest people, I would think!), a replica of an Amish school, some pumpkins, some metal Mom and apple pie, but I would consider pumpkins, cows, and Amish things in Iowa to be along the same lines. I stopped at the Amish place first, peeked inside to find baskets, jellies, and the like, took Carly on a walk through the rapidly melting snow, and took a few shots:

And then...pulled into the Iowa Welcome Center gas station. Without even looking (and THIS is what tricky, tricky Iowa people expect you to do), I entered my credit card, opened my gas cap, pulled out the gas pumper unit, and blindly selected the lowest octane gas, regular unleaded, right? WELL!!!! It was only when I started pumping that I noticed I was being charged $3.46, a full 15 cents more per gallon. Huh?????

It was then that I saw that the super unleaded was $3.31. I looked at the tall highway sign attracting unsuspecting, trusting highway travelers, and sure enough, in tiny letters under the price, was "Super Unl" tacked on the bottom. What a crock! I couldn't believe it! Playing on the psychology of drivers who need gas and just want to get back onto the road--they fully expect you to do what I did, mindlessly stick in your card, pick what you would normally think is the cheapest gas, and go forth and fill your tank. And, when you find out you were paying MORE for regular unleaded, you would just grumble a bit but suck it up and fill up anyway because you need gas and don't want to stop again. Well...not me.

I put in $10.00 and left. That got me through Des Moines. I stopped again just north of Des Moines, and sure enough, the same thing. So...I was ready and picked super unleaded.

Iowa, of all places. I am shocked and dismayed. The blinders are off. Iowa is just as conniving as the rest of us.

Minnesota: Home Turf

Glad to leave the tricksters in Iowa behind, I stopped at the first Minnesota rest stop. It was still cold, but I managed to get a short walk in for Carly.

I entered Minnesota farm country. It is still farm country, but changes have taken place. I mostly look forward to seeing the old historic barns, which are disappearing across many Midwest landscapes. I love the old barns, and am always so appreciative of the farmers that take care of these relics from the past and keep their farms clean and tidy to boot. However, you can't get away from progress, and Minnesota farm country is no different. Wind farms pepper the landscape along Interstate 90. Seeing enormous windmills next to century-old barns just blows me away, but I think of how important it is to figure out new energy resources. I can't complain.

I arrive at my parents' home in Rochester just in time for happy hour. Hugs all around, pats to the dog, and before I could even start to unload all my stuff, wine is served. Happy hour at my parents' house consists of wine, snacks, and Judge Judy. Carly gets a chewie, and we relax and start to unwind. The perfect finish to a long drive!

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