New York City.  Finally.  It is, indeed, a hell of a town.

Yesterday started early.  We woke before dawn and bundled up.  Sam's Grams gave us a lift to the train station and we caught the 7:27 train to Grand Central.  Being on a train again brought back a lot of memories of London, Kuala Lumpur, and Osaka.  I watched out the windows with great anticipation as we passed through several small towns like Bedford Hills and Chappaqua.  As we got closer to the city, the buildings got denser and taller.  We passed through a tunnel and suddenly we're riding through Harlem.  Brick apartment buildings were scattered to the horizon; the city seemed to stretch on forever.  It wasn't long before we entered another tunnel and arrived at Grand Central Station.

Surreal was the word of the day, for sure.  Here I was, standing in arguably the most famous train station in the world, looking up at the windows and tile work with my own eyes.  It wasn't as busy as I expected, thanks to us arriving at a non-peak time, and I was able to wander the levels a bit with my camera.  Sam showed me the aural phenomenon that is Whispering Corners (a landing in the station where two people can face away from each other and talk into the tile and hear each other from quite a few feet away.  It reminded me a little of Center of the Universe in Tulsa.  I wonder if this was intentional or just a coincidence, much like the Center?  

Leaving the station, I was greeted with my first real look at the city...and it was busy.  People rushing everywhere on their important errands, trash piled up at the curbside, and Starbucks shops as far as the eye could see.  We took my friend Richard's recommendation to see the Chrysler Building lobby first (an art deco treasure) before walking down to the New York Public Library.  It wasn't open yet, but I got to see the iconic lions out front with their decorative Christmas wreaths.  Around the other side sat Bryant Park, with a few pop-up shops and an ice rink.  Sam tells me the fountain there was featured in the opening for Friends...but seeing as how I never watched that show I just nodded and smiled.  We walked a bit further and I suddenly found myself surrounded by the bright lights of Times Square.

Surreal, once more.  It was the day before New Year's Eve; police barricades were already set up in many areas and preparations were well underway for the celebration.  I stood in the center of the square, nearly by myself, looking up at advertisements and displays that cost more than I'll probably make in my lifetime.  Taxi cabs crawled around me and people continued their rushing about.  I took my small TARDIS out to get a shot of the square when I noticed a guy taking a picture with a worn little sock monkey.  He saw my TARDIS and we talked for a few moments; he was in the city on business and was taking a picture of the monkey for family back home in Oregon.  He was a Doctor Who fan and insisted on getting a few shots my traveling companion as well.  We parted ways as quickly as we met; Sam and I wandered from the square and headed to Rockefeller Plaza.

The walk from Times Square to Rockefeller was filled with more sights that littered my memory, including Radio City Music Hall & NBC Studios.  We rounded the corner to the plaza and my vision was filled with one of the largest trees I'd ever seen.  People were everywhere, taking photos and reveling in the giant Christmas tree.  Ice skaters glided around below us as we circled the plaza, looking into the Lego Store and the nearby Nintendo World store.  My heart was full of excitement as we went into 30 Rockefeller Plaza and rode the elevator up to the observation deck.  It was there that I saw the most amazing sight of the day:  Manhattan from 70 floors up.  We walked around the rooftop and could see to the horizon in all directions.  The Empire State Building and World Trade Center to the south, Central Park to the north, and all points in between.  It was stunning!

Once we descended back to the surface, we took the subway south to the Flatiron district.  The Flatiron building was my absolute must-see in the city; since I loved the Triangle Building in Pawhuska so much and had seen it my entire life, I was very interested in seeing the most famous triangular building in the world.  It didn't disappoint.  It looks impossibly thin from many angles & the architecture had many stylistic nuances that speak to the time it was built.  Like the rest of New York, it was surrounded by dozens of other buildings that, had they been built elsewhere, would get a lot more attention.  In New York, though, architecture suffers from an embarrassment of riches.  We had lunch (at a great little burger place called Schnipper's!) and walked over to The Highline, an old elevated train track that was converted to a park a few years ago.  This was probably the least-touristy place of the day, and even though it was winter time there were sections of green grass among the dormant bushes and trees.  It was here that I realized the shoes I had brought didn't have enough arch support for the day's walking and I developed a slight limp.

We walked back to the subway and went south to Hook and Ladder 8, the fire house in TriBeCa that was used in 'Ghostbusters'.  It was pretty quiet; aside from a painted logo on the sidewalk with a ghost you might not even know its' significance.  It is still in service, but I got a few shots of the building.  My geek heart was happy!  We continued walking south, seeing the new Trade Center up close, Trinity Church (with grave markers form the 1700s!) and eventually making it to Battery Park, which is as close as I got to the Statue of Liberty.  By now, the sun was setting and we needed to head back uptown to have dinner and see the play we had tickets for:  Waiting for Godot with Sir Ian McKellen and Sir Patrick Stewart.  Suffice to say, it exceeded my expectations.  It definitely shows that those two are close friends in real life.  Sam, who isn't a fan of Beckett's work normally, was pleasantly surprised at how the play came to life.

We boarded the train back to Brewster at 10:22.  We spent thirteen hours touring the city.  I saw many of the sights I wanted to see, and a few that surprised me.  As I mentioned earlier, the entire day was filled with the surreality that I was in this famous city after dreaming about it for so long.  I felt blessed to experience it with Sam, and we both saw some parts of New York for the first time.  It's that kind of place.  I could spend the rest of my life in NYC and never have the same day twice.


Welcome to New York

Saturday morning started very early for me.  I've turned into more of a morning person over the last few years, but getting up at 4:15 is something I can never adjust to.  It does help to look forward to the reason you're getting up so much earlier than the sun, and I had a great reason.  I was about to board a plane for New York to meet up with my girlfriend Samantha, meet her family, and spend the next eight days experiencing the country in and around The Big Apple.  Even on just four hours of sleep, I was tremendously excited!

My flights were uneventful (just the way I like it) and I arrived at the regional airport in White Plains just before noon.  Seeing Sam's smiling face was like getting a shot of adrenaline; we embraced each other for what felt like forever.  Once we got my bag sorted, we walked outside and I met Sam's mother.  She is a charming woman and it was immediately obvious where Sam's generous spirit came from.  I was welcomed with open arms as we loaded into the family van and drove out to Brewster, the small town where I would be staying.  Although the drive was only about twenty minutes long, I already had a feeling for the countryside.  Trees and water reservoirs were plentiful and the houses all had that northeast charm I'd seen in books and on television.  When we turned into the drive to Sam's grandmother's house, I was immediately in love with the place.

The house is across the road from a canal that connects several water reservoirs, nestled in a forested area.  The three-story structure sits on three acres that are also populated with several small buildings, farming implements (both for decoration and practical use), and an assortment of old trucks in various states of restoration.  Walking into the home filled me with an immediate sense of belonging.  I met Grams and Sam's four year old niece, Avery, and toured the lovingly cluttered rooms that all spoke of several generations' worth of accumulation.  Weathered furniture sat in the spaces unoccupied by family crafts, World War II memorabilia, and the living needs for a space that regularly housed six people:  Grams, Avery, Sam's brother Caleb and his wife, Uncle John, and cousin Jason.  This didn't count others, like Jason's fiance or Sam's mom, who regularly spent a significant amount of time here.  It was a house of controlled chaos.  Sam's room was at the top of the staircase, and that's where I put my bags...right next to the husk of an old .50 caliber gun.

I mentioned earlier that I felt an immediate sense of belonging.  Not only did I get hugs when I walked in, but in a grandmotherly tradition I was offered food instantly (and constantly thereafter.)  Cookies were baked, snacks were purchased...they even got pizza for lunch so that my first meal was authentic New York Style pizza.  I took a short nap and was greeted afterwards with presents and a stocking from the family.  As the evening wore on, dinner was prepared (breakfast for dinner...a choice specific to me) and I met everyone, including Sam's father.  I had been pretty nervous about this meeting, considering our backgrounds were vastly different, but it actually went rather well and we found a few things to talk about.  We ended the evening by drinking and playing dominoes, another family tradition.  I lost miserably, but that hardly mattered.

Sunday was much less busy, but I got the chance to walk around the property and see some of the artifacts up close.  It was raining, so I didn't get a lot of good pictures, but I look forward to taking my camera out later in the week.  Tomorrow will be my first day in the city proper, and I am prepared to be overwhelmed.


The Possibilities of the Future

"What is your favorite picture that you've taken?"

I was asked this recently, and it is one of those questions that I get often.  I feel differently about all of the pictures I've taken and been pleased with; it's difficult to narrow down a single photo as an absolute favorite.  It feels somehow unfair.  That being said, I do have a picture that is my favorite.  And that troubled me for a long time.

Highway 11 in Osage County

As many of you know, in January of 2011 my father passed away unexpectedly.  He had moved back to his hometown of Pawhuska, Oklahoma to care for his mother, who was in the last stages of lymphoma.  He had no will, so when I received that dreadful phone call, it fell to me to handle his estate.  For the next few months, I traveled to Pawhuska regularly to get everything taken care of.  The road I traveled was the same one that lined memories of visiting my grandparents in the summer or getting together with family for the Fourth of July.  These happy memories of my childhood were being mixed with new feelings of sadness and loss.  I took this photo one morning as I drove through Osage County, along a stretch of highway that mirrored my emotions; familiar, yet strange.  My life was moving into unknown territory, just as the fog obscured my destination.

I will never be able to replicate this picture; the time and emotional place are just as important as the physical location.  That's the reason it's my favorite.  However, until recently I felt that it limited me, which is why it troubled me.  "Surely, nothing I experience will ever match that day...so no future photograph will ever measure up."  Rather than choosing a limited view, that same understanding can open me up for greater success.  I will never take another picture like that again, but I can seek completely different images to express myself.  Acknowledging that I will not be able to replicate that image will stop me from trying...and move on.  Trying to re-create a "better" version of that picture is a waste of time and resources.

This same process is helpful in a variety of areas in life.  No two books are the same.  No two relationships are the same.  No two jobs are the same.  The longer we hold on to the feeling of, "This is what I've experienced before, and this is what I need to achieve again," the longer we rob ourselves of new and potentially greater experiences.  I encourage you to look around and see if there is anything you are trying to 'recapture' from the past; it could be limiting you from even greater heights in the future.



"What do you like to do in your spare time?"

It's a simple question.  When you are getting to know someone, it's one that inevitably comes up.  I was asked this question recently and found myself stumped.  My go-to answers I'd used most of my life didn't apply like they once did.  I don't read as much as I used to.  Video games don't take up hardly any of my time these days, save for the few releases that really garner my attention.  I don't even feel like I go to the movies often.  So, what is it that I actually DO?

Well, when I step back and look, I'd have to say the thing I'm most passionate about is photography.  I like to take pictures, and that's something I do.  But it's hard to really quantify that into an activity.  I'm not a part of any groups, or have any kind of tangible pattern to it; it just happens when it happens.  Sometimes I end up with a few photos I really like, other times the pictures are simply a catalog of my time.  After that, it's travel.  I love to experience new places.  Since I have an affinity for history, going to a place with some kind of significance is a bonus.  Although, when you sit and think about it, every place has a history...you may just have to dig a little more for it.  That can be fun, too.  Combining travel with my camera is even better.

So, when I'm not wandering somewhere with my camera (either local or afar)...what is it that I do?  I have my friends, for whom I am so very thankful.  I hang out with them and take part in whatever is going on with them.  But that, too, is difficult to quantify.  Sometimes it's a meal; other times it's hanging out at the park or watching a television show on Netflix.  It's rare that I have something going on independently.  So the question becomes muddy and my answer is vague.  I feel like I spend most of my free time sitting at my computer.  That's not an answer I want to give to anyone.  So, what do I WANT to be doing instead?

I don't rightly know.  I feel like being part of a community would be good for me, but I haven't found an option that sounds appealing.  I have zero interest in church or religion.  Exercise has never been a focus in my life.  I don't know much about being handy, so working on the house, car, or garden doesn't sound appealing.  I don't have any creative talent for crafts.  I don't know what I want to invest my time in.


Waffle House

Always a good idea!
Breakfast is my favorite meal, regardless of the time of day.  It's the meal I cook most often for myself and also the one I am most likely to reach out to friends for company if I have none.  Even though my tastes are pretty simple (usually a couple of scrambled eggs, some bacon, toast, and hash browns) I will never tire of it.  Brookside by Day is my favorite local spot, but my favorite chain is Waffle House.  This confounds just about everyone I know.  "Are you serious?" they either ask or plaster all over their facial expression.  They don't understand.  But it's like going home for me.

The genesis of this emotional attachment goes way back.  Breakfast is tied to Sunday mornings at home with everyone pitching in to help prepare the meal.  Even Dad made the eggs.  However, Waffle House came into the picture in the mid-nineties.  We took a road trip to Florida to go to Disney World and, at some point, we realized just about every highway exit in the South had a Waffle House nearby.  It became a game for my brother and I to spot them first and point them out to Mom and Dad.  Of course, we stopped a time or two as well.  Once I attached that bond, every dining visit strengthened it.  When I worked out at the Cingular/AT&T call center on the eastern edge of Tulsa, there was a Waffle House two miles away that I became a regular at.  In fact, I came in so frequently that the staff knew me by name and order.  When I left Tulsa to start my trip around the world back in 2009, it was the last place I ate at before hitting the road.

2009 with Reva and Virginia

I have fond memories in many WH locations in and around town.  The 61st/Aspen location in Broken Arrow held conversations with my old friend Tony Finley.  The 11th St location was a frequent stop for Indi and me when we were first dating; after they tore it down & turned it around, it became a memory cache for drunken 2 AM dinners.  The Mingo location is the one I visit most often these days, as it's closest to work.  Last time I went in, one of the waitresses asked why I had stayed away so long.

This morning, I woke early and had nothing planned.  Since nobody was awake or available, I decided to head out to Catoosa for old times sake.  It had been over a year since I was last in. It exists next to the Hard Rock Casino, a place full of terrible memories for me; my stomach still clenches as the old emotions flood my system. Happily, my two regular waitresses from back in the day still remembered me and gave me a hug.  "Where the heck have YOU been?" they asked.  I sat at the counter, ordered my regular, and enjoyed my meal.  "How've you been?" "How's work?" "You seein' anyone?"  It's like something out of a movie.  A comfortable place with food I enjoy and people I care about.  It's the most accurate version of comfort food I know.

Before the huge expansion


Route 66 (Part II)

Thursday, I went home sick from work.  Some kind of stomach bug had taken hold of me and, although I was trying to get things accomplished at the office, everyone was like, 'Dude, go home.'  So I did...and I rested.  Friday I still didn't feel great, so I stayed home.  I hate missing work, but I'm glad I didn't push myself.  I milled about the house and rested.  By the time Saturday morning arrived, I was feeling better; I was also feeling stir-crazy.  I needed to get out of the house and DO something.  So I went to breakfast.

I sat and ate my traditional bacon and egg breakfast at Brookside by Day and wondered what I was going to do with my Saturday.  It was a beautiful morning and the day was wide open.  When I finished eating, I got into the car and took off down Route 66, not really sure how far I was going to go.  I started by heading over to the Route 66 Pavilion off of Riverside, the place I stopped when I drove 66 from Miami, OK.  Heading down Southwest Blvd, I first passed the Route 66 Village.  The 'village' is a small area which consists of a restored steam engine locomotive, a few train cars, and an oil derrick nearly 200 feet tall to symbolize Tulsa's first oil strike back in 1901.

Driving farther down the road, the old highway runs right through Sapulpa.  I'm not very familiar with this suburb of Tulsa; I never find a reason to come out here.  But I did know they had a restored trolley car somewhere in town, and sure enough, right along the highway was a restored, sheltered trolley car left over from the times when rail ferried passengers to and from Tulsa.  It was a short visit, as the actual area the trolley was kept was closed, so I decided to keep driving.  As I was exiting the city limits, I saw a great old steel truss bridge; a weakness of mine.  I pulled over and explored the bridge for a few minutes, noting the old brick pavement beneath my feet.  It had been closed earlier in 2013 for safety reasons, so I had it to myself.  I wonder how long it'll be before it, too, is only a memory.

The landscape of Old 66 is peppered with towns I've heard my entire life in weather reports on the local news, and I saw many of them for the first time.  Kellyville, Bristow, Depew, Stroud, and others.  Although this stretch of highway wasn't as dynamic as it was between Miami and Tulsa, each community did their best to grab their piece of Route 66 nostalgia and make it special.  Depew, a town of less than 500 people, sat with the most deserted downtown I've seen in a long time, but still had some signage signifying their pride in the town's heritage.  Stroud is home to the Rock Cafe, a historic restaurant whose owner was an inspiration for the Pixar film 'Cars'.  Davenport's downtown is entirely brick paved and hosts many beautiful murals.  Arcadia has a famous round barn and Pops, a gas station/gift shop built around hundreds of soda flavors.

Once I realized I'd driven all the way to Oklahoma City, my focus moved to lunch.  I made a list a few months back of burgers in Oklahoma I needed to try and figured, since I'd come this far, I might as well go a little further.  An hour and a half later, I found myself at the foothills of the Wichita Mountains near Lawton, Oklahoma at a little place called Meers.  Recognized as one of the best burgers in the country, their burgers are made from Longhorn cattle raised by the same family that owns the restaurant.  They're served in a pie tin and are extremely lean; I was pleased with my meal, to be sure.  They even serve R.C. Cola in mason jars!

Satisfied with my unexpected day trip, I drove back home along I-44.  Now that I've driven the two stretches of Route 66 that extend from Tulsa, I want to keep going.  Maybe one of these days I'll make a weekend of it and go through Missouri, or perhaps back down through Texas and New Mexico.  I've been watching so much Breaking Bad lately I'd really like to explore more of Albuquerque...and I hear Santa Fe is an amazing place to visit.


Emotional Ramblings

I've been going to counseling regularly since January.  As I got closer to the second anniversary of Dad's death, I didn't feel as advanced in my grief as I felt I should be.  In addition to that, I had noticed a disturbing trend of getting close to women in dating situations, then backing away like they were on fire.  I had an emotional wall that would go up like a blast door on a space ship.  Sometimes it went up brick-by-brick, other times it appeared suddenly and fully.  I know it was frustrating for the people it affected; it was frustrating for me, to be sure.

Today I went to my appointment and felt pretty good about it.  I talked about my experiences at Dragon*Con with my friends, which were universally good.  I talked about a dinner I had with my ex-wife several weeks ago, which was a goodbye of sorts as she was moving out of state.  It was a non-event emotionally, which is progress.  I helped Mom through her back surgery, which she is recovering nicely from.  I talked about my brother's divorce, now final, and his subsequent adjustment to divorced life...which he is handling completely different than I have.  I talked about work; our software conversion is finally starting to calm down and life is getting less stressful there.  I talked about how I felt stable emotionally through all of this.

I talked about how Brewburger closed last week and how that was one of the last places Dad and I ate together and that the closing was a sad event for me.  Not crying upset, but still sad.  I talked about the march of time and how both of the last restaurants Dad and I went to were now gone and I had less and less to remember him by.  I have many things, sure, but every loss is felt because there's no replacing it with anything else.  She suggested I find a new ritual for him; something I did have control over.  That's a good idea...I'm going to have to think about what that is going to be.

I also talked about my relationship issues.  Although I have greater stability, I'm not sure how much of that is true and how much is just keeping busy.  I spent the last two days pretty much non-stop watching Breaking Bad with a friend; now that the house is empty I'm not sure how I feel about it.  My friends that went to the Con with me talk about Post-Con Depression, as do many other attendees on Facebook and other social outlets.  I haven't suffered that in the past; I am sorry that Dragon*Con has to end, sure, but I'm also happy to return to regular life.

I have the rest of this week off and will be taking another trip this weekend, this time to Guthrie to camp and see a few concerts.  I'm eager to see these bands and spend some time with a friend I haven't been able to hang with in a while.  Fun?  Yes.  Helpful to my emotional well-being?  Yes...but is it just temporary?  Will my return home be met with me looking for some other event to fill the space?  I wonder about sustainability.  I worry about the shadows returning to my mind.  The doubt, the self-loathing.  The incessant over-analysis of everything in my life.  It's been quiet for a while, but I can never believe it's gone.  It's just part of who I am.  But...I can't shake the feeling that I'm hiding from something.


The Necessity of Reinvention

Last night, I spent some time digging through an old file cabinet to find an old floppy disk for Mom.  It contained copies of manuscripts she'd written about ten years ago; since she's going to be taking some time off for her back surgery starting next week she wanted to do some work on them.  It was impossible to root around the old, metal cabinet without coming across a plethora of stuff of Dad's, and I found myself sorting through tons of old papers.

There was a lot of interesting stuff in there:  old training manuals for a produce supervisor course at Associated Wholesale Grocers, newspaper ads, internal memos from his old office (including the one from his promotion that moved us to Tulsa from Claremore), and even old store schedule paperwork from before I was born.  Next to the cabinet was a pair of old briefcases.  In one, I found a LOT of old John Wayne stuff.  Dad clipped newspaper articles that mentioned The Duke, and I found a lot of articles about his failing health and death in 1979.  He even saved little adverts that mentioned television broadcasts of films.  The second briefcase is the one that I find myself thinking about this morning, the one that inspired me to write today.

It was his old daily briefcase, which held mostly tax documents now, that commanded my attention.  The tax stuff inside wasn't important anymore, but the case itself represented my father at the end of his life than anything else I had.  It was in disrepair; Dad had taped it length-wise to keep it in one piece.  Although it still latched, the bottom bulged dangerously.  Among the bulk of tax documents inside were a few other items:  a few photocopies pictures of my mother, a nearly-spent tablet of paper with notes jotted down that spoke of a man trying to make himself into a better person after losing what was important to him, even printed out old emails that consisted of a few kind sentences.  Dad was a man that could not let go of the past and move forward.  He, like the briefcase, was a container full of old memories that was barely taped together.

I love my father very much, but he was not a perfect man.  I look up to him immensely and model myself after the best of his behaviors while also trying to learn from his mistakes and shortcomings.  I tend to get melancholy and morose when I feel like I'm spinning my wheels; I crave growth.  Whether it's in my work, in my personal relationships, or myself I am happiest when I am learning.  When I dwell on things and rehash the past (something I'm infamous for) it's a terrible spiral of over-thinking.  I don't want that.  I look back at myself five, ten years ago and see a different me.  Still me, sure, but I'm not the same person I was.  Dad tried desperately to hold onto who he was; if he'd welcomed his future with the same energy, he might still be here today.

So, I look to the future.  I look forward to who I will be tomorrow.  As long as I never stop learning, I will continue to reinvent who I am.  With stagnation comes complacency, and I've already seen what that does to me.  I don't think I can afford to take another 10 months off and travel the globe to jump-start my sense of purpose.  Although, that would be nice...


End of the Road

What a long and wonderful trip it has been!  I logged over 3,000 miles behind the wheel and burned nearly 100 gallons of gas through six states in the last nine days.  I saw mountains, valleys, rivers, flats, canyons, deserts, cities, and much more.  It was the most successful road trip I think I've ever taken.  Sunday, the final day, took me from Amarillo back home to Tulsa.  But it wasn't a straight shot; I had a few stops to make.

First came the 'Slug Bug Ranch', a tongue-in-cheek display of classic Volkswagen Beetles mimicking the Cadillac Ranch on the other side of town.  It was fun to see these vehicles, designed to cater to the opposite side of the automobile buyer, dealt with in a similar artistic manner.  Like Cadillac, all the cars were spray-painted a multitude of colors.  After seeing this and The Big Texan (a restaurant in Amarillo famous for advertising a free 72 oz steak if you can eat it all; no I didn't try it!) I took Highway 207 north to Borger, TX.

Back in the 1960s, my Mom lived in a couple of small oil towns in the panhandle of Texas.  When I told Mom about my trip, she reminded me of that time in her life and I made a note to at least drive through these places to get a feel for them.  Borger was bigger than I expected, boasting 13k people as the oil industry there was still active.  It was a far cry from the small towns in Oklahoma I'd been used to seeing die slowly over the years.  It didn't take long for me to find the house Mom lived in, and I took a photo for her.  I sent it to her, pleased to be able to stand in the same place she did when she was in elementary school.  She told me she could see her daddy's pickup truck in the driveway and thanked me for seeking it out.  She hadn't seen it for about fifty years.

After Borger, we drove to Pampa, TX.  Although Mom couldn't recall the houses she lived in specifically, she knew the street.  After a little searching, I found the street and the school she attended.  I took a few more photos for her and basked in the solitude that is small-town Sunday morning.  The business districts of both towns were shut tight and the only parking lots that were filled belonged to the churches.  The faint smell of oil lingered from the fields that were active 24/7.  Additionally, on the horizon you could see the giant windmills that worked to supply power to the area.  It's strange to see what doesn't change in the face of emerging technology.  Seeing cattle graze at the bottom of those giant constructions was a little surreal.

The final stops on this road trip through the American West were places along Old Route 66.  McLean, TX housed the first Phillips 66 Gas Station in Texas, now painted a lovely orange color and sitting on an otherwise derelict corner of the tiny town.  In addition to that station, I found another old theatre (though it was in pretty poor shape compared to the others I'd visited) and a few old gas pumps scattered about town.  The last town was Shamrock, which has a restored gas station called the Conoco Tower.  It was built in 1936 and is a fine example of art deco architecture, something unusually ornate for gas stations at the time.  It was also used as the basis for one of the buildings in Pixar's 'Cars' film.

DeeDee and I made it into town, returned the rental car, and parted ways after our long, excellent trip.  I sat in my house at about 5:00 PM on Sunday, happy about the things I'd seen and the experiences that occupied my memory.  It was a busy time, but in a good way.  It's back to work and the normal day-to-day business that is life.  I'm excited to start thinking about the next trip I want to take and what sights I want to see.  It's been too long since my passport has had any stamps in it...


The Home Stretch

Today was a long day.  Which is odd, really, when you think about how busy every day has been for the last week.  But the 8 and 1/2 hour drive from Flagstaff to Amarillo isn't populated by much.  Lots of wide open spaces full of scrub brush and dust.  We only had one stop planned, and that was in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

Some time back, I read an article that named 50 of the most beautiful old movie theaters in the country.  I made myself a map of them so that I could reference it any time I did some traveling.  That's how I discovered the Fox Theatre in Hutchinson, KS that I visited last Saturday.  The same is true of the KiMo Theater in Albuquerque.  After driving five-and-a-half hours, we arrived in town to find the theater.  It was downtown, which was just a little ways off I-40, but the lovely GPS took us to a road that was completely closed due to construction.  We weren't the only people caught off-guard; the traffic snarl took about half an hour to get through before emerging on Central Ave, which is also Old Route 66.

This part of downtown, much like other places I've visited, really plays up the Mother Road heritage.  Lots of signage, touristy shops, and diners.  The KiMo Theater is a gorgeous building from 1927 that blends the local traditional adobe style (which is EVERYWHERE) with art deco and other architectural influences of the time.  It was a beautiful day; the blues, yellows, and reds of the building shone as bright as they must have when the building was new.  It wasn't open (though it's in the middle of a Stanley Kubrick retrospective) but the awning and interior appeared to mirror the amazing style of the exterior.  Lunch was had across the street at Lindy's (an old Route 66 diner) and we left town with another 4+ hours on the road ahead of us.

Originally, the last half of today was just going to be a drive straight to Amarillo.  However, after my last post, my friend Randy messaged me and encouraged me to visit the town of Tucumcari, an old Route 66 spot.  I saw a few of his pictures and, since it wasn't far off the main highway, figured I'd give it a try.  On the way, I noticed a LOT of small towns with signs encouraging drivers to see 'Historic Route 66' and drive through their main street instead of zipping by at 75 miles per hour.  Every sign I passed filled me with more despair that I was missing these small gems of Americana; finally, I could bypass no more.  I pulled off I-40 at Moriarty to have a look.

Moriarty is the name of Sherlock Holmes' nemesis, so DeeDee and I took pleasure in photographing the town sign.  Aside from that, it was pretty quiet.  Not a lot of classic stuff left aside from occasional 'Historic Route 66' highway signs.  When we picked back up on I-40, I began to wonder if these detours would be worth the time.  Tucumcari was coming up soon, but before that a small town called Santa Rosa beckoned to me with giant billboards promising fun and adventure.  Although the adventure in Santa Rosa was as faded as the billboard was, there was evidence everywhere of the former glory days.  Old restaurants, motels, and obviously repurposed buildings lined Route 66.  By the time I'd stopped for a few photos, my excitement matched the promise of that ancient roadside advertisement.

Tucumcari was next.  The photos I'd seen the day before were of restored hotels and shining classic automobiles in the center of town.  I took the first exit I could and entered the edge of town on Old 66 because what I wanted were the dregs:  the unrestored, abandoned, and closed ghosts of road trips past.  The town exceeded my expectations.  Dismantled drive-ins, overgrown hotels, and boarded up filling stations were everywhere.  Even in the middle of Saturday afternoon, the town moved at a snail's pace.  I want to go back some day when I can REALLY spend time in these small towns and explore each street, not just the main route.  Before long, it will all be gone.

As we approached Amarillo, we stopped at our last detour of the day:  Cadillac Ranch.  An art installation dating back to 1974, it consists of multiple various-model classic Cadillac cars buried past the hoods and sticking out of the ground at an angle.  People are encouraged to come by and add their own art to the living canvas by spray-painting on the junked vehicles.  It's really something, especially considering the cars are on an actual in-use ranch.  Cows grazed nearby as I sprayed my initials on a tire rim and took pictures of the rest of the cars.  It's definitely a surreal sight.

Tomorrow is the last hurrah; driving home to Tulsa with only a few minor detours planned.  I'm very eager to get home and into my own bed, but this trip has been truly wonderful and I don't want it to end.

Back to the Canyon

Friday brought with it the last big destination on my trip west:  The Grand Canyon.  After decided to just wing it on the day of, my attention turned to the possibility of getting a picture of the sunset at the canyon.  Since the sun sets at about 7:40 PM this time of year, that would mean not leaving for the canyon until much later in the day.  I had most of the morning to mill about and do a whole lot of nothing...which was nice!

During that downtime, I reflected on my previous trip here.  It was a stop on my trip to California, where I would board a cargo ship bound for New Zealand.  I was with two of my best friends and my wife.  Interestingly, the hotel I stayed at in 2009 is right next door to the one I'm in now, so it was really easy to put myself back there.  I've changed a lot since then.  I've been single for nearly three years now, my father and all of my grandparents are gone, and I work in a job that's similar to the one I left back then, vowing never to return to.  But the changes are not all losses; I've gained friends, a greater sense of self, a wonderful appreciation for my home town, and my skill as a photographer has increased.  My previous two-week road trip to California has less than 120 pictures to catalogue that journey; not counting today, my one-week trip now has over 540.

I've also learned to let more things go and enjoy the journey, rather than the destination.  On our way to the Ramada last night, we missed a turn onto I-40 here in Flagstaff.  By this fortuitous error, I found myself driving on Route 66, which cuts right through the heart of Flagstaff.  That happy accident lead to my plans for the day before going out to the canyon; seeing Flagstaff's contribution to old Route 66 culture.  DeeDee and I walked through the old downtown district and drove up and down the Mother Road, seeing old motels and diners along the way.  Once we left town for the canyon, I was met with ANOTHER wonderful surprise:  Route 66 continued on to Williams, AZ and they REALLY held onto their roadside heritage.  Considering how important Route 66 is to Tulsa, it was wonderful to see another town that made 66 into a big deal.  I wish I'd have been hungry so I could've eaten at one of their many retro diners.

After that fun detour, it was on to the Grand Canyon.  Highway 64, which runs north to the canyon itself, is peppered with small touristy roadside attractions that grabbed more of my attention on my second go-through.  The several stops we made soon brought me a new realization:  the sky was darkening.  I didn't realize we even HAD a monsoon season in the US, but we do.  And Arizona was in the midst of it.  The time I'd taken in downtown Flagstaff, Williams, and along the road had threatened the time we'd dedicated to the canyon.  Although I'd been before, it was DeeDee's first visit, and I didn't want it to get rained out.  We pushed on as I quietly muttered against the weather.  We arrived at the park and attempted to find parking.  I grumbled as I drove up and down the lot near the Visitor's Center before I decided to move on to another view point.  Thankfully, I was rewarded for this shortly and we found a spot just east of Mather's Point.

Even though I'd seen the Grand Canyon before, it was no less awesome.  The human mind cannot comprehend the depth of the canyon at first glance; it looks like a painting or a trick of the light.  But it isn't; with time and attention, you begin to truly see the layers of rock, the distance between the rise and fall of the chasm, and you cannot help but be amazed.  Like last time, I felt panicky when I or anyone near me got close to the ledge...and EVERYONE seems to think it's a GREAT idea to hop the little stone barrier (or go to one of the many places where there is no barrier or guard rail) and get close to the drop-off for pictures.  I can't even think about it now without my stomach clenching.  I just have to walk away and not think about it.  Even so, I was able to get closer to the edge this time without going bananas.  At one point, a nice couple asked if I could take their picture.  Of course, I said yes and made sure their photo was to their liking.  "Where are you from?" I asked.  "We are from Rome, Italy."  I excitedly told them how much I enjoyed their city, and they asked where I was from.  When I said Oklahoma, they remarked, "Ah, a local!"  Even though I don't consider fifteen hours away 'local' I suppose it's all a matter of perspective.

After we'd been to a few viewpoints and outrun the sprinkles by the skin of our teeth, the storm finally set in.  And what a storm it was!  It began raining torrentially; the huge drops of water were mixed with hail and high winds.  The temperature dropped from the lower 90s to 57 in a matter of minutes.  We debated leaving right then, but decided to try and find a place near the main Visitor's Center and see if we could wait out the weather.  We were rewarded once again when the storm let up about half an hour later; we were able to enjoy Mather's Point and the main area of the south rim.  Though the wind had kicked up rather fiercely; I was afraid my trusty hat was going to blow into the canyon.  As we toured a few more viewpoints, rangers and police were out handling fender-benders and directing traffic away from flooded roads.  Like I said...it was a heck of a storm.

We headed back to Flagstaff by taking the scenic route through the San Francisco Peaks.  It was a lovely drive through the Coconino National Forest and we didn't run into much other traffic.  The clouds in the distance remained menacing, though, and once we made it back to town they unloaded once more, bringing localized street flooding, lightning, and more high winds.  It was the first day that any kind of rough weather showed up, and I am thankful that in spite of that the day went well.  Tomorrow brings a long road day, driving from Flagstaff to Amarillo, and Sunday brings me back to Tulsa.  Although I don't expect anything nearly as exciting on the last few days, I do have a few stops that I'm eager to experience and share.


Monument Valley

Monument Valley: a place I've wanted to visit as long as I could remember.  And visit I did.  For a brief time, I walked in the footsteps of John Wayne and learned some of the sacred history of the Navajo Indian tribe, the valley's original inhabitants.  Throughout my time there, I thought about my father and his love of the Hollywood Western.  The images I saw with my own eyes had graced our television for my whole life.  And now, here I was, breathing the hot Arizona air myself.

The previous night, on Wednesday, I was pulling my hair out trying to figure out what our plan was going to be on Friday, the day we planned to spend at the Grand Canyon.  There was so many options as far as where at the canyon to visit and what time would be best.  We started looking at some guided tour options (as I've never been IN the canyon) and that opened up a whole new world of impossible choices.  Somehow, I found myself looking at information on tours in Monument Valley, a stop en route to Flagstaff.  Even though Monument Valley was the primary reason a flight to SLC to see Alex turned into a road trip, I hadn't even considered anything guided.  We found one that was highly cited on TripAdvisor, called, and made a reservation for the next day.

The drive was easy, and my anticipation grew as our destination drew closer.  All of the sudden, we crested a hill on Highway 163 and the iconic mesas were spread out across the horizon.  I immediately recognized the area as the spot of road that Forrest Gump decided to stop running, so of course I had to stop and take some pictures.  It was also a great place to get a feel for how vast the valley was.  We drove down to our meeting place: The View Hotel, a resort of sorts on Navajo land right at the entrance to the valley.  The view, as one would expect, was absolutely spectacular.  Our guide, Aaron, arrived and we set into the valley at about 1:00.

Aaron was Navajo and throughout our trip we learned about the local culture as well as his history.  He had been in construction most of his life and returned home a few years ago to raise his two young children.  His family had been running these tours for many years and, although he still had a lot to learn himself, enjoyed sharing his culture and heritage with others.  Much like Arches, there were people from all nationalities here.  For most of our journey through the valley, we were by ourselves.

After hitting some of the big places like the Mitten Buttes and John Ford's Point, Aaron drove us back to the areas available only to Navajo guides.  Our jeep skittered around on sandy trails as we passed homes and traditional hogans (pronounced ho-gones) still occupied by Indian locals.  All of the mesas and buttes had names that carried meaning and history; moments underneath the Suns Eye and near the Sleeping Dragon were so absolutely quiet that I could've gone deaf and not realized it.  Our solitude was most appreciated when Aaron took us to the Big Hogan, a natural rock formation that mimicked the traditional hut, where I stared into the sky while listening to him play a traditional cedar Navajo flute.  At that moment, I was seeing the exact same thing that the Navajo saw for hundreds of years.  I didn't even have to close my eyes and pretend.  It was in that moment that my thoughts of my father were the strongest; oh how I wish he could have been there with me.

We saw a few more of the sights around the valley after that, including an AMAZING view of the valley from what's called the Northern Window, before saying goodbye to Aaron and Monument Valley.  The drive to Flagstaff was uneventful (save some small rain pockets) and the Ramada was a welcome sight after such a hot and dusty day.  Tomorrow brings the Grand Canyon, and although we finally decided to just drive up and wing it, I know it'll be spectacular.


Arches National Park

Wednesday morning came early, as one of Alex's cats decided rattling blinds was the best fun-time activity to pursue at 6:30 AM.  Though, considering I'd awoken early every day of this trip anyway, it wasn't that big of a deal.  Too quickly, it was time to say goodbye to Alex.  We had such a wonderful time together in and around the city and she was such a gracious host.  DeeDee and I piled our things into the Ford and set out for our next destination, Moab.  Why Moab?  Because it sits right next to Arches National Park!

I had marked the park down as a 'must visit' back in April of 2012.  That road trip never happened, but fifteen months later I was finally on my way.  The drive covered some of the same ground I drove from Grand Junction to Salt Lake City, but seeing it coming the other way was a new experience.  I saw things I missed the first time around and found places to stop and take pictures.  After a quick 4 hour drive (seriously, it just breezed by) we arrived.  We immediately stopped to get a picture of the entrance sign and met a family from Minnesota.  "Have you been in before?" the father asked.  When I said no, he grinned.  "Oh, man.  You're going to LOVE it!"  I was already excited but random traveler excitement just added to my anticipation.  Once we actually entered the park, every license plate I saw was from a different state.  I heard as many different languages as I did in Washington, D.C.  It was amazing to share the sights with people from all over the world.  

I also became less tolerant of the occasional sprinkles I'd driven through on the way down.  Surely it would clear up soon.  We stopped at a few early places and marveled at the unfathomably large rock structures and I used my hat to shield my camera from the maddening precipitation.  Thankfully, after about twenty minutes, the clouds parted and I was greeted with blue sky.  The amazing landscape that I could scarcely believe was amplified by the change; the orange and red colors of the rock formations blazed in the sunlight.  When we arrived at Balanced Rock, the rain clouds were almost totally gone.

At Balanced Rock, I noticed something strange.  There were small stacks of rocks EVERYWHERE.  I remembered this was something important, but I couldn't recall specifics.  Turns out they are a hiker's way of marking a trail.  In such a heavily populated area, though, it appeared that people started stacking rocks because someone ELSE stacked rocks; there were no discernable paths.  But I continued to see these little pillars of stone throughout the park.  We drove to several other rock formations and marveled at the strange shapes the earth had taken; rock spires jutted defiantly out of the ground, the last remnant of some larger structure that was literally weathered away.  The temperature rose as the sun got comfortable above us and it became clear we were NOT prepared with much water...but the park is easily drivable, so no big deal, right?  Right.

When we arrived at the Double Arches, I immediately suspected this would be my favorite spot in the park.  Not only is it an amazing rock formation, beautiful in color and shape, but it was also used in the filming of 'Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade'.  I already had a picture outside of the 'library' in Venice from the film, and I became giddy at this unexpected opportunity.  I gleefully set up my picture before going to the arches themselves.  I even climbed up to the highest point inside the arches, triumphant in another small victory over my fear of heights.  I enjoyed a few minutes of glory before realizing I now had to figure out how to get DOWN.  I made it, but not without some muttering and anxiety.  Such is life.

We toured the rest of the park afterwards, which included the Devil's Garden, the Skyline Arch, and the Delicate Arch.  The latter is used as a backdrop for modern Utah license plates, so I expected it to be the most populated arch in the park.  As we reached that section of the park, I noticed it was an actual hike out to the arch; there was a view point, but it was a fair distance from the arch itself.  Our lack of water planning kept us from hiking out to the arch proper; heck, even the hike to the view point was rough enough.  I reached the top of the viewing area out of breath, the words of Richard's long-ago letter echoing in my mind.  We both made it, though, and left Arches very pleased with our day's journey.  Once we got to Moab, we ate a late lunch (which also served as dinner) and prepared for the next day, which would take us to Arizona and my most anticipated destination since...well, ever.

Monument Valley.


A Dash of Salt

We didn't have much in the way of plans for our full day in SLC; in fact, it wasn't until Tuesday morning that I recalled the salt flats as a point of interest.  Alex was definitely up for the trip, even though it was two hours outside of town.  We piled into her Rondo and set a course due easy on Interstate 80.  After breakfast, of course, which consisted of a croissant sandwich, donut, and coffee from Dunkin Donuts, a pleasure we don't have yet in Tulsa.

The road out of town went past the airport, past the Great Salt Lake (more on that later), and then to an expanse of salty flatness that's hard to describe.  People that say western Kansas is flat need to spend a few minutes driving I-80 towards the Nevada border.  It's FLAT.  They even have signage warning drowsy drivers to pull over rather than risk lives.  On top of that, the flatness is so pronounced there are also 'High Wind Area' warnings and Alex spoke several times of her vehicle getting waylaid by strong winds.  But just because the drive was flat does not mean it was uneventful.

At one point, DeeDee noticed there were messages in the salty soil just off the highway; it was evidently a thing to arrange rocks by the roadside to spell out messages, names, and symbols.  Of course, we decided to hop out and do the same.  Much to my delight, the fence separating the highway from the railroad was gone; this allowed me the pleasure of taking some pictures from the rail line itself.  Afterwards, I collected some rocks and started placing my name on the ground.  Alex found it funny that, even when using rocks, my handwriting was the same.  I hadn't noticed.  DeeDee also gathered some rocks and placed her initials on the roadside.  It was pretty cool!  We piled back into the car and continued west.

We approached a rest area outside of Wendover and stopped.  This was the main touristy spot for folks to stop, pointing out the significance of the salt flats and the Bonneville Raceway, where the world land speed record was set.  I walked out onto the flats proper, which was quite different than the name-writing area, and marveled at the white expanse in front of me.  The thick salt stuck to my shoes and filled my nose; the sun shone as brightly as it does after a snowfall.  Even though we were still close to the highway, it was serene.  I noticed a man nearby in full garb, some kind of priest.  All around me shone the brilliance of the flats.  But there was one more place to visit before heading back east.

I'd read about a small access road a little further up the highway, one that went a little further into the flats.  We found it and drove out to the end of the line, next to a marker for the Bonneville Raceway and an older gentleman with an easel.  I complimented him on his artwork and he asked where I was from.  When I said, 'Tulsa' he was awestruck.  "You have one of the greatest museums in the country there."  I guessed Philbrook, but he corrected me:  Gilcrease Museum was on this man's list of must-see places in the US.  We talked for a few minutes about the nature of art and he shared some of the work he'd painted that day.  I took his information and told him I'd be in touch.  Afterwards, I wandered the asphalt terminus and marveled anew at the flats; there was an area of standing water that looked absolutely gorgeous.  The mountains reflected with brilliance and it could've been hundreds of feet deep if I hadn't known better.  It was an amazing moment.

We drove back to Salt Lake City, stopping once because I saw an old husk of a bus in the desert that I HAD to see through my camera lens.  As we got closer to the city, DeeDee asked if we could stop at the Great Salt Lake, as she has a penchant for putting her toes in water at all opportunities.  Of course, that was no problem!  We found an access road to the lake and stopped.

This did not go well.

The "Great" Salt Lake turned out to be a putrid, desolate landscape swarming with bugs and littered with bird carcasses.  The smell was nearly overpowering as we trudged through the crunchy soil towards the lakeside, which had receded to the point where it took a five minute walk to reach it.  Once we arrived, though, the condition of the water was too dire for even DeeDee to brave the muck.  It was just awful.  We walked back to the car, a trio of pungent and defeated travelers, cursing the signs that encouraged anyone to visit the lake for any reason.  When we got back to the car, we felt the best way to get past this blighted, desolate "lake" would be to have a delicious late lunch at In-n-Out.  It didn't disappoint.

Our day ended with time downtown and wandering around the Temple grounds.  I gotta hand it to the Mormons: they keep their city clean and organized.  The Temple is an amazing area with beautiful flowers and other peaceful surroundings.  I couldn't count the couples getting wedding photos done as the sun started to set.  The evening wound down and we settled back at Alex's place, packing and getting ready for Wednesday.  I can't believe it's only been four days!

The Beehive State

The Grand Vista Hotel in Grand Junction, at the end of all things, was a little less than Grand.  I don't have any big time complaints, especially in light of some of the places I've stayed in the past, but it straddled the line between hotel and motel such that I had higher expectations AFTER I arrived.  By the time I showered, packed, and checked out I was ready to get on the road.  Aside from my slow burn of disappointment, today's drive would take me into Utah and into the company of my friend Alex, who moved there almost a year ago.  Alex was beside herself in excitement, eagerly awaiting our arrival.

We had breakfast at a lovely little mom 'n pop place in Grand Junction and then headed out.  I didn't really have much in the way of expectations to the landscape in Utah and I crossed the state line with heightened curiosity.  The drive through Utah was full of browns, reds, yellows, and if a town was nearby there was a strip of green signifying irrigation.  We drove through canyons, down mountainsides, and across desert landscape dotted with mesas.  It felt like the old west in the movies.  Much of the day's highways were laid parallel to railroad tracks; it was easy to imagine an old steam locomotive moving along, bringing eastern citizens westward in search of riches and a fresh start.

The drive to Salt Lake City was short in comparison to my recent experiences and we arrived in early afternoon.  Alex was super excited to see us and eagerly welcomed us to her home.  After a brief visit, we piled into her car and she showed us around town.  We drove through downtown (briefly; I definitely want to spend more time there) and she took us up a steep neighborhood road to a stunning lookout spot that overlooked the entire city.  It was like a painting; the mountains to the left, the city below, and the long expanse of landscape as far as the eye could see.

"Where to next?" Alex asked.  I checked my phone for any notes I had and instead saw a message from my friend Kristi recommending a local beer.  A short Google search later and we were en route to Park City, home of the brewery/pub for said beer.  Unbeknownst to me, the GPS on my phone routed us to a small, one-gas-station town an hour out of our way.  The drive was beautiful, but I was still angry at myself for not checking my map closer.  Nobody else had any issues, though, and we made it to Park City without any further issues.

Park City is a big skiing town.  Since it's the middle of summer, it's definitely not peak tourist season.  Still, it was really busy.  The downtown district is made up in a style like the Old West and there was plenty of boutiques open for trading.  We had a wonderful meal at the Wasatch Brew Pub (complete with an AMAZING porter) and wandered Main Street until we were weary.  On the way out of the town, we stopped by the Olympic Park used for the 2002 Winter Olympics.  Although it was closed, it was a beautiful sight.

Another day filled with highway miles, tasty vittles, good company, and amazing sights.  I'm tired, sure, but I'm also excited for everything tomorrow brings.


"As I look out over this magnificent vista..."

Some people take vacation and decide they're going to sleep in every day, relax, and not do much of anything.  That's fine and good…when I take a day off here and there, that's definitely what I TRY to do (my body doesn't let me sleep in that far these days, and if it does I usually awake with a headache) but when I take time off in a long stretch I gotta do something with it.  So when I woke up bright and early just after 6:00 AM on Sunday to greet the sunrise, I felt fantastic.  We got rounded up without much fanfare and left the Stagecoach Motel in Colorado Springs to our first stop:  Garden of the Gods.

I visited this park last year, and although I had a fantastic time and really enjoyed it that entire vacation to the Denver area was soured by the strange events that followed my trip; the couple that had opened their home to me and, it seemed, had really enjoyed my company for the week I was visiting sent me an email a few weeks later that said some really hurtful things. They severed all ties to me and that was that.  I still don't understand what happened…but that's a year ago now, and I was here in Colorado to make some new, untainted memories.  Not only that, but being in this magnificent place at sunrise provided us with cool temperatures and low population.  Like last time, I was struck at how quickly I ran out of breath; just because I wasn't on a mountain didn't mean the elevation wasn't a factor.  I could exercise more, too, I suppose.

I lead DeeDee to a perch I'd discovered on my last trip and we sat for a few minutes, looking out at the rock formations and marveling at the ingenuity of nature.  Once we felt like moving again, we wandered around the park for a bit longer, seeing the Kissing Camel rock formation and the Balanced Rock just down the road, and then left town.  The original plan was to drive north to Denver and cross over to our next stop, Grand Junction.  That plan changed when I was telling some other friends about my upcoming trip and they insisted I take the south route, taking Highway 50 through the San Isabel National Forest.  That was absolutely the right thing to do, because boy howdy was it a picturesque drive.

Not only did the road we took go through many small towns like Salida and Gunnison, but we stopped at many natural wonders to soak them in.  Even though the Royal Gorge National Park was completely closed due to the wildfires last month, we were able to find a small picnic area still open so we could see the gorge and the bridge.  It was breathtaking.  Even though I have a really rough fear of heights, I scrambled out to an area closer to the edge than I can normally tolerate to take some pictures and view the river below.  Suddenly, I became aware of my surroundings (I blame other tourists that showed up and started crowding me) and literally ran back to the car.  It was a real shame about the rest of the park; were surrounded by blackened trees and a barren landscape where once wildlife flourished.  Although the ranger I talked to said they'd re-open eventually, 48 of 52 buildings burnt down in addition to the forest and it would be a long time.

The unplanned nature of our stops throughout the rest of the day added excitement and unpredictability.  We wandered through the downtown arts district of Salida, rode a sky ride up to the top of Monarch Pass (not only did that give us the opportunity to see the Continental Divide from 12,000 ft up, but a small thunderstorm rolled through and we got stuck on top of the mountain for about half an hour!), and watched rafters navigate the rapids of the Arkansas River.  At one point, I was driving and noticed a road sign that had a camera on it with an arrow pointing to the right.  "Take a picture?  Of what?  There's not…OH!"  As soon as I started talking, the landscape opened up on my right to reveal the Dillon Pinnacles, an amazing rock formation across the river.  I laughed at myself; how crazy is it that these amazing natural sights seem to pop up out of nowhere?

After a long day of beautiful vistas and winding roads, we arrived in Grand Junction.  We ate at a local Irish Pub recommended to us by Alex, spent a few minutes in the hot tub (good for my aching shoulders, bad for my ears courtesy of the many screaming children), and slept soundly, knowing the next leg of our journey would take us into Salt Lake City itself.


Hitting the Road

Don't you hate it when you wake up in the morning suddenly, startled, somehow KNOWING instantly you overslept?  "WHAT TIME IS IT?!" your brain screams before anything else even registers.  That's how I woke up on Saturday, at five minutes to 8:00 AM.  I was supposed to go pick up a rental car at 8, but in my early morning haze I had turned my alarm OFF instead of snoozing it.  I scrambled to get ready quickly; when my friend DeeDee arrived to get on the road, instead we had to go get our car first.  It added about an hour to our morning, but overall it wasn't a terrible thing.  In fact, we got a better car than I reserved for a great rate (gotta have cruise control) and we got on the road a little after 9 without any other issues.

This road trip came together rather quickly in the grand scheme of things; I had some vacation for early July that I hadn't decided if I was actually going to do anything with or not.  When I ended up moving it to this week due to a software launch at work (which ended up getting delayed anyway) DeeDee asked what I thought about visiting our mutual friend Alex in Salt Lake City.  It grew pretty quickly from a flight to SLC to a ten day road trip through six states.  After only about three weeks of planning, we zipped out of Tulsa with a full itinerary.  Yes, we actually typed up an itinerary.

Day One's driving would be the longest single stretch of the entire trip.  Over ten hours of travel time from Tulsa, up to Wichita, and over to Colorado Springs.  There was one stop I definitely wanted to make on the way, conveniently about half way, in a small town called Hutchinson, KS.  Some time ago, I read an article that listed some great old cinemas throughout the country.  I keep that list in mind any time I plan any kind of travel, and one such theater exists in Hutchinson.  The Fox Theater was built in 1931 and the facade looks brand new.  It's nestled in a small town full of the character you'd expect from such a location; I was actually a little sad that we couldn't stay longer to explore the quaint downtown, but we had a long ways to go.  We did stay to eat, though, at a local drive-in place called R-B's that had FANTASTIC homemade onion rings.

Several people had been very adamant that western Kansas was extremely flat and boring.  Once we got on I-35, I could tell what they were talking about.  Luckily for us, though, the sky was dynamic enough that we were able to keep ourselves entertained on the long drive to the Colorado border and beyond.  In fact, we ran into a few pretty harsh pop-up thunderstorms, including one where the rain was so heavy I nearly pulled off the road to wait for it to pass.  At least it washed all the bugs off the car!  Wind farms also dotted the horizon was we wound through corn and wheat fields and to the Colorado border.  Highway 24 in Colorado was a lovely twisty-turny highway full of small towns to keep the scenery fresh.  The car handled very well and I was quite thankful we hadn't opted for the compact car.  Regardless, when we finally arrived at our motel, it was a quick dinner and lights out.  Tomorrow promised to be a day full of wonder.


A Piece of Route 66

It's been a while since I've posted here!  Truthfully, it's been a while since I've done much in the way of travel or had anything I felt was worthy enough to write about.  Thankfully, over the extended 4th of July weekend I had thanks to a strategically-placed vacation day, I was able to get out of town for a day and take a trip I've been meaning to take for years:  the section of Route 66 from Tulsa to the northeast corner of the state.

I started by taking the Will Rogers Turnpike up north, zipping along at 75 miles an hour.  It was uneventful, aside from passing underneath the former World's Largest McDonald's near Vinita as it was being dismantled after falling into pretty poor shape.  The reason I wanted to start in Miami (pronounced My-am-uh) was a single place:  the Coleman Theatre Beautiful.  However, I arrived pretty early and it wasn't open yet.  In fact, I wasn't sure it WOULD open considering it was the day after Independence Day, so I wandered Main Street.  Miami is very proud of their Route 66 heritage and the quaint storefronts all have ties to the rich past of the Mother Road.  I was welcomed inside a small tourist shop and was told that, indeed, the theatre would open for visitors shortly.  I entered with great joy!

This old vaudeville theatre was built in 1929 by the guy that discovered the 2nd largest deposit of lead and zinc in the world, underneath what was once Pitcher, OK and is now the largest Superfund site in the country.  This guy made over a million dollars a month (not adjusted for inflation!) and wanted a place for road acts to stop and entertain, so he built a beautiful Spanish Revival style theatre.  In the last 20 years or so, the city has restored it and with good fortune they have it looking very close to how it appeared on opening night; they even found the original Mighty Wurlitzer organ and have silent film festivals with it!  I marveled at the ornate work, both inside and out, as a volunteer toured me through the facility.  I stood on the same stage that once hosted the Marx Brothers, Will Rogers, and even Tom Mix and his horse.  I marveled at the elaborate rigging backstage and the intricate lighting system as I was regaled with story after story of discoveries, donations, and pure luck throughout the restoration process.  The entire place felt magical.

After finishing my tour of the Coleman, I needed to eat...so I stopped at another Route 66 landmark, Waylan's Hamburgers...also affectionately known as the Ku-Ku Burger.  It was a delicious roadside dive burger and was more than enough fuel to get me down the road.  When I'd visited the tourist shop earlier, I was told about a small section of Route 66 nearby called 'Ribbon Road' or the Sidewalk Highway.  Back in the day, Route 66 was a single lane because of how few cars were on the road.  Builders assumed *IF* two cars happened to be traveling at once, it would be no big deal for one to pull off and let the other pass.  I had to see this.  The road was in deep disrepair, considering it's now very rarely traveled due to a bypass, and the only other vehicle I saw was a tractor.  But I took the opportunity to stop and marvel at the landscape that was not unlike what it had to look like back when it was originally built.  I felt really special, standing on the gravel and cracked asphalt and listening to the sounds of the world as it turned around me.

The rest of my trip down 66 took me through several small towns; Afton, Vinita, Chelsea, Claremore.  All towns in various states of twilight that were trying desperately to stay relevant in a world that continued to speed past.  Afton had a delightfully restored service station, Vinita's downtown had several points of interest, and even tiny Chelsea had one of my favorite things:  an old steel bridge!  Claremore is the town I spent my first six years living in, so I was somewhat familiar with it, but it was still nice to take a break and explore the downtown and pause to appreciate the tenacity of small town America.

After re-entering Tulsa, I took care to ensure I stayed on the route until I got home, seeing familiar sights through the lens of the day's journey.  I arrived at my house after a long day of driving and smiled, for I had seen a piece of Americana that I felt a real connection to.  I am already planning the sights to see on the rest of Route 66, traveling southwest to the other corner of the state, and the many opportunities to experience the slower pace of yesteryear.