There… And Back Again: Eastbound And Down

There… And Back Again: Eastbound And Down

After a short break from my epic solo road trip to fulfill a prior commitment in Washington, DC for a few days, I traded in my suits, conference centers, and luxury of sleeping in the same bed for three nights in a row, for t-shirts, dusty cargo shorts, and living out of a car for a month.

It was definitely a strange experience to be heading (by train) to the Baltimore-Washington International Airport, just a few hours from home, knowing that I’d be spending the next 20 days or so driving almost right back to the exact same spot I was standing on at that moment. And after over two weeks of mostly being alone and living like a literal drifter, spending all that time in “normal” society was bizarre. Still – I did take advantage of the opportunity to go to do some DC sight-seeing, so in a weird way I kept the adventure going even through most of my days were taken up by meetings and powerpoint presentations.

Prior to departing LA, I took some time to hang out for a few more days to explore the city (fantastic!) and spend some time with some California friends. But in the end there was…

…no time for spreadin’ roots
The time has come to be gone
And though our health we drank a thousand times
It’s time to ramble on

Santa Monica Pier Sign
One man’s end of a road, is another man’s beginning. And sometimes, both men are me!

The Southern Route (…and back again)

From Los Angeles, I had about three weeks to get home. Even though I had more time going east than going west, I had A LOT more targets and places to check off on my way home. In my favor though, I had no one to meet up with until I reached Atlanta, so it was pedal to the metal the whole way back.

The crazy thing about California is that it’s practically a country unto itself. I actually had over a week of driving within California beginning with my ill-fated “short cut” to the coast on my way west. And I could have easily spent another week inside the Golden State.

From Los Angeles I first went up to Oxnard to the Baron Herzog Winery (the restaurant there is an amazing hidden gem for kosher eaters!) went east for a couple of days to check out the interior of California around Bakersfield. Then it was back out to Santa Monica, Hollywood, Beverly Hills, and finally back south on the Pacific Coast Coast Highway all the way to end of the road in San Diego. I then hopped onto Interstate 5 to the Mexican border, where I made my second major error. You see, I learned the hard way that there is nothing that stops you from just driving right into Mexico and then having to explain to the Mexican customs officials how you “accidentally” crossed into their country. And then explaining to the AMERICAN border control what exactly you’re up to trying to get back into the USA 20 minutes after leaving…

Anyway, once I was back in America it was back to the San Diego area to check out the San Diego Zoo (cool!), other local sights (great city!), and then to the San Diego airport to change cars to my third, and final steed, a white Dodge Charger because car number 2 needed new breaks and 2 or 3 oil changes…

Now it was time to put in some miles. I headed east on Interstate 8, right along the Mexican border to the Imperial Sand Dunes (where they filmed Star Wars!) and the bizarre town of Felicity, CA (the self-annointed center of the Earth… whatever), it was here I made my third major error of the trip, when I was following my GPS parallel to the highway on a dirt road. Unfortunately for me, it thought I was on the highway and led me to drive onto a literal sand dune… trapping me in 110 degree heat, until I was saved by some very nice Border Patrol officers.

Despite my second near-disaster in two days, I was undeterred, and continued all the way out on Interstate 8 to the Sonoran Desert National Monument in Arizona to some awesome saguaro cacti.

Sonoran Desert
“Meep meep.”

From there it was up to Phoenix (beautiful!) for a quick dinner before heading back into California on Interstate 10 through Hell, CA (crazy story look it up). Back in California, it was back on to highway 395 north to Joshua Tree National Park, then Death Valley to find the ACTUAL Joshua Tree from the U2 album cover (incredible).

Yosemite Valley
Yosemite Valley is just about as close as you can get to Rivendell outside of Middle Earth.

Continuing north, I stopped at Mono Lake (hidden gem!) and the absolutely incredible Yosemite National Park. Not sure why or how but somehow I ended up in Sacramento where I finally turned east for good. After a quick boat ride on Lake Tahoe, it was time to bid a final farewell to the truly magical California and begin the long journey home.

US-50 The Loneliest Road
US-50 in Nevada, AKA the Loneliest Road. In 12 hours I never passed a car and maybe saw 4 or 5 going in the opposite direction.

The Loneliest Road

Picking up another tip from RoadTrip USA I crossed into Nevada via highway 50 (after a quick detour for some roulette in Reno), what Life Magazine once dubbed “the loneliest road in America” for its Nevada portion. The highway actually runs all the way to Ocean City, MD but as it winds through Nevada there are just five towns and no rest areas. At its loneliest, there are 110 miles between human habitations on this road – so best to fill up on gas and water every chance you can. It was on this road that I made my fourth potentially costly mistake, when I accidentally walked into someone’s bedroom and the fella who was sleeping in the middle of the day was… highly displeased to see me.

There are a lot of cool things to see on this highway though, in additional to truly astonishing desert scenery, there are petroglyphs, a 700 foot sand dune (which I stayed far far away from), a Pony Express station, and near the border of Utah, Great Basin National Park where you can see bristlecone pine trees, the oldest living things on Earth. There’s also… limited enforcement of the speed limit, and the road often goes for miles with no curves. As close as you’re going to get to an Autobahn-type experience in the USA. Truly an American treasure.

Balanced Rock, Arches National Park
They call this “Balanced Rock” at Arches National Park, but come on, it’s Snoopy!

Canyons, Arches, Corners, and a Fork

From Great Basin it was time to leave highway 50 behind and move to the next phase of the trip.

Utah is a road warrior’s dream. Literally every turn of every major highway takes you somewhere that is simply otherworldly. And with so much dusty open space, it’s easy to feel like Mad Max. I could have spent weeks here too, but the clock was now ticking after my longer-than-expected sojourn in California and I only had about 10 days to get home. So I had to be efficient.

Bryce Canyon was my first stop and then it was east onto Interstate 70 at the San Rafael Swell. From there I gunned it late into the night to get to Moab, UT for a visit to Arches and Canyonlands National Parks, stumbling across Cisco, UT a ghost town where I saw an incredible supercell thunderstorm at sunset.

I then realized I was pretty close to the famous Monument Valley Forrest Gump scene, but I had no internet access and barely any cell reception at all. Heading south on 192 from Moab I came to a fork in the road at White Mesa, UT. I chose… poorly… Heading southeast instead of southwest, I missed my shot and ended up going straight to the Four Corners tourist attraction (cute, but… not really exactly world changing). After standing in four states simultaneously (sort of…) I crossed into New Mexico and drove right past Shiprock to Interstate 40 east, over the Continental Divide and then well past Albuquerque deep into the night.

Carlsbad Caverns, NM
Carlsbad Caverns in New Mexico, one of the coolest and most easily accessible real-world dungeon crawls you will ever find.

Eastbound and Down

There was now little time to waste. I had seven days to drive over 2,000 miles (if I was going in a straight line, which I most decidedly was not!) – and still try and take in a few sights where I could. From Moriarty, NM I went east on I-40 (which overlaps with Route 66 in many places) and then turned south to go through the crazytown that is Roswell and down to Carlsbad Caverns (amazing). Crossing into Texas via Route 62, I then got back onto Interstate 40 through Oklahoma, only stopping to for a quick visit to the incredibly somber Oklahoma City bombing memorial.

Onward on I-40 through Arkansas, with a quick stop at Mount Nebo State Park (nice, but basically West Jersey), Tennessee was next. And while I’m not really much of an Elvis fan, driving through Memphis meant a stop in Graceland was mandatory and folks, I just so happened to be there on the anniversary of his death and the annual vigil. 100’s of Elvis impersonators as far as the eye could see. Simply amazing.

Elvis Lives!
A little less conversation, a little more action please…

From Graceland it was a beeline down through Mississippi, across the Mississippi River and a visit to New Orleans where they have the best coffee and beignets this side of the Seine, at Cafe Du Monde.

Onward across the bayou into Alabama on Interstate 10, I connected to I-66 and then up into Atlanta (great!) to visit with some friends and see the sites. With only two more driving days to go, I still had much to do, and less time to do it.

Appalachian Trail at Harper's Ferry, WV
The Appalachian Trail winds its way north in Harper’s Ferry, WV. Maybe another time…

The Appalachian Trail Road and Homecoming

Leaving Atlanta early in the morning, I was finally done heading east. It was now time to head north toward New Jersey for the home stretch.

Heading up past Tallulah Gorge (ehhh… welcome to the land of the “biggest _____ east of the Mississippi” qualifier), I followed a mix of highways parallel to the Appalachian Trail into North Carolina. From there it was the Blue Ridge Parkway through Smoky Mountain National Park (excellent!), with a quick stop at Mount Mitchell, the highest point… east of the Mississippi. Then it was into Roanoke, VA for my last night on the road.

The last day on the road was a busy one. Heading northeast in I-81, I just missed seeing Natural Bridge in Virginia for my final screw up on the trip (I didn’t even know it existed so not really my fault). I did get to see my second fake Stonehenge right nearby… Foamhenge.

Entering West Virginia I made a quick stop at Harpers Ferry (amazing!) for my last national park, and a short walk along the actual Appalachian Trail which runs right through it. Heading into Maryland, I got back on the other end of I-70 (3,000+ miles from where I first got onto it in Utah) before reconnecting with highway 50 (3,000+ miles from where I first got onto it in California!) to go across the Chesapeake Bay onto the Eastern Shore of Maryland.

From there it was a straight shot east to Lewes, Delaware where I drove onto the Lewes/Cape May ferry. After sharing the late afternoon with some dolphins I finally drove my car off the boat and into New Jersey.

I took some time to watch the sun go down into the Delaware Bay for what was the most incredible sunset of the entire ship. Reflecting on the past 53 days, I got into my car for the last leg of the trip – northbound on the Garden State Parkway.

Finally, at 10:11 pm, on August 20th, I got off the highway for the last time and headed over to my parents’ house for my first home cooked meal in nearly two months.

Cape May-Lewes Ferry
Re-entering NJ in style, via the Cape May-Lewes car ferry. The journey draws to a close.

Main Stops

Los Angeles, CA (departing at 10:51 am) → Bakersfield, CA → Oxnard, CA → Santa Monica, CA → Mexican Border Crossing → San Diego → Felicity, CA → Sonoran Desert National Monument → Phoenix, CA → Joshua Tree National Park → Death Valley → Mono Lake → Yosemite National Park → Lake Tahoe → Reno, NV → “The Loneliest Road” → Great Basin National Park → Bryce Canyon National Park → Arches National Park → Canyonlands National Park → Shiprock → Roswell, NM → Carlsbad Caverns National Park → Oklahoma City → Mount Nebo, AR → Graceland → New Orleans, LA → Atlanta, GA → Tallulah Gorge → Blue Ridge Parkway → Smoky Mountains National Park → Mount Mitchell, NC → Foamhenge → Harper’s Ferry, WV → The Appalachian Trail → Lewes/Cape May Ferry → Highland Park, NJ (arrival at 10:11 pm, August 20th 2010)

For the way there, check out Part 1 of this post.

Sunset in Cape May
The sun goes down at Cape May Point, NJ. Looking back west across Delaware Bay it was hard to believe how far it is the next ocean.

There’s a feeling I get
When I look to the west
And my spirit is crying for leaving…

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