Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Into the Heart of America

Leaving Memphis and the green Tennessee hills took me away from everything familiar that I'd driven through my whole life. I've traveled around, but never driven from my house to the kind of flat, dry places I was seeing now. While in Tennessee I could still imagine that I was still sort of in the East. But when entering Arkansas, there was no denying it: I was in the boonies. On a map it's almost half-way across the country.
And I have to admit it wasn't as boring as I thought it would be. Besides the excitement of finally fulfilling my dream of a cross-country drive, the landscape was so different from what I was used to it made it kind of exciting. And I was looking forward to stopping in Little Rock, a town I knew absolutely nothing about (which made it interesting) except that the Clintons were from there, and that Marilyn Monroe sang a song about it in a movie.
It turned out to be a pretty nice little city, small enough to zip in & out of, and big enough to have some cool stuff to see. It was a beautiful day, and I was hoping to have time to check out the Clinton Presidential Library, which I'd heard was really something, but didn't know where it was. Finding the way downtown, I stopped on the main drag (I forget the name of it) near the Missouri River, where places like St. Vincent Plaza and the "Flying Fish" restaurant were. The Plaza was a little park on the river, and the "Fish" turned out to be a great casual place to stop by for a plate of clams & fries.
But looking down the street, I spotted the unmistakeable silhouette of the Clinton Library, hanging over the river just a few blocks away. So in I went, paying my entrance fee and soaking up all the pro-Clinton publicity one could hope for in one building. Seriously, it was a pretty good museum of the political events of the '90's, and even had perfect replicas of the Oval Office and the Cabinet Room, as well as one of his presidential limos, with bullet-proof glass windows so thick you could barely see through it. It may well have been the one I saw pass by on Pennsylvania Avenue after his second inauguration. Hillary was waving, barely discernible through that heavy window. After 9/11, I can only imagine George Bush's limo windows must now be able to stop a tank.
I paused to check out some pups for sale on a street corner, then I was on my way to Oklahoma, which arrived surprisingly quickly. I don't know what tapes or radio stations I was listening to in Arkansas, but they must have been good because I barely remember driving through the state. Before I knew it it was dark and I was in Oklahoma city for the night. Finding a Best Western, I settled in for an evening of listening to TV while sending emails.
The next day I went to see the Memorial, officially known as the National Memorial & Museum, build where the Alfred Murrah federal building was bombed in 1995. It's a must-see for anyone even passing through, and I quickly found my way there, in the heart of the city. They did a great job, bulding a park where the building used to be, with ponds, trees, and those iconic chairs, one for each victim, in a grassy field. One special item was the "Survivor Tree", a grand old American elm that actually survived the blast, and still bears the blackened scars of that infamous day.
I also had to stop at the Memorial Fence and read some of the touching messages and see the many gifts, patches, crosses, flags, wreaths and other items attached to it. I had a sudden urge to add to it. Searching my car, I found nothing suitable. Then I remembered that soon I'd have to get new license plates in California, so I quickly unbolted my "H1BR1D" plate and clipped it onto the wall, showing that someone driving from Virginia had stopped by to visit. I also added my luggage tag (Dulles to Zurich) from an old trip. It's nice to know that they'll be added to the museum's collection of thousands of other items left on the fence.
There was much, much more to the memorial, not even including the museum, but space prohibits including it all. And time was pressing, so I headed once again westward, this time making my way across the panhandle of Texas to New Mexico. Now I was not only half way across, but truly in the West. The panhandle is the "chimney" top portion of the state, and looks rather small compared to the rest, so I figured it would pass quickly by. But, unlike Arkansas, it seemed to take a very long time, in spite of that wonderful 75 mph speed limit (which meant I could drive 84!) Forunately I had my new cell phone with me, and remembering some old friends who live in Texas, the Ramsey twins, I spent several hours catching up with them while driving the endless miles. One of them, Ramsay (yes, that's his name), told me to look out for the big balloon festival in Albuquerque that might be coming up soon. I doubted I'd hit the city the same weekend, but appreciated the info.
About the only interesting things I saw in the whole panhandle were lots of colossal windmills, and possibly the best highway rest stop in the country. It was a uniquely wedge-shaped building with gardens, a good information booth, and even a tiny museum-quality display on windmills. Some Texans must complain about the money spent on a place that mostly "out-of-staters" will use, but we travelers certainly appreciated it.
It was dark by the time I arrived in Albuquerque, and I had some trouble finding a hotel, even though I could see them from the highway. Once I exited, there were no signs pointing the way, and I quickly became disoriented in the dark, unknown city. This was an experience I repeated several times, and it seems that the cities might want to help out travelers and give them a bit of direction on where to go to places like that. But I finally found a Motel 8 which even had internet access, so I had my usual leftovers from lunch, checked my email, and hit the sack.
The next morning I had a tough choice: I could push on, or stay a day and see the International Balloon Fiesta, which I found out from the hotel clerk was starting the very next day! It was supposed to be an awesome sight, hundreds of giant hot-air balloons rising in waves at sunrise and again at sunset. I opted to drive to the fairgrounds and maybe decide then. But back and forth driving revealed only rows of RV's and campers on the fairgrounds. I guessed the balloonists wouldn't be arriving until early the next morning. Whatever the case, I found the urge to move on stronger than my desire to see all those balloons, so westward once again I went.

Next: Flagstaff, Best Friends Sanctuary, Salt Lake and Reno.... and wolves. See you there!

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Go West, Young Man

I'm back in San Francisco after driving across the country for the past 10 days. I didn't go overboard and make marathon 12-hour drives; instead I stopped in cities and places I wanted to see, and occasionally made brief side trips to explore a bit.
It all started when I decided to take Dr. Bachman's offer of a job in his shelter/clinic near San Francisco. The Contra Costa animal shelter has two separate clinics in it, one public and one for the shelter animals, so there's lots to do there! But everything I own was in Virginia. I decided not to move everything all at once, which would mean having to tow my car behind a moving van. Instead, having gotten quite used to living out of a suitcase for the past year, I filled my car with the basic necessities I might need for a few months and took off. I didn't even have a place in San Fran to live yet, but knew I could rent a room-- people are always renting out. I can fly back later and get the rest when I decide where to settle down.
So off I went on a bright September morning. Route 81 goes all the way to Knoxville, Tennessee, and I made the drive easily, listening in on the different local radio stations, which included everything from country music to NPR (public radio), which was broadcast in a surprising number of remote places. And that's where I soon was, in remote southern Virginia, which is a world away from the suburbs of Washington D.C. where I grew up.
It was late by the time I reached Knoxville; there was nothing I wanted to see there anyway, having visited it a while back while volunteering for a RAVS (rural area veterinary service) weekend. I found a hotel off the highway and, still bleary with road daze, found my room and collapsed. But I was excited about the days to come.
This was about as far west as I had ever driven. I've always wanted to drive across America; I've even had vivid dreams about leaving and just heading west as far as I could go. It was finally going to become reality. I must admit I was a bit concerned that it would turn out to be a huge disappointment, especially after having just returned from a round-the-world tour. But I needn't have worried.
The next day I made Nashville by noon, and found the downtown historic center, the first place I always look for, having gotten into the habit in the old cities of Europe. I had been told that there wasn't much there. It seemed like a nice enough town, and might have been interesting seeing the main street in the evening when the bars and restaurants were in full swing, but I was more interested in Memphis which was still a half-day's drive away, so after a quick drive around town I opted not to stop for lunch, but instead push on.

Along the way on a whim I got off the highway and took a parallel road just to see a bit of rural Tennessee. I stopped to check on some dogs roaming in the street, but they quickly took off. It was there I noticed a beautiful spaniel in the yard next door, whose owner I had a nice chat with after being unable to resist petting the dog.

I got to Memphis by evening, and quickly got a hotel and, knowing next to nothing about the city, asked the clerk where to go. He gave me directions and I soon found Beale Street, the neon-lit equivalent of the French Quarter of New Orleans. It was touristy, tacky, completely gaudy, and I loved it.... at least for a few hours. The tourist district is ony about 3 blocks, but there's lots crammed into that little area. There was blues music blaring from every bar, beer stands which you could walk away with a drink from, and curio shops selling everything Elvis that the most die-hard fan could hope for. Even the horse-drawn carriages had neon lights.

I never made it to Graceland, but after hearing about it later I probably should have stopped by. Well, I had to make Oklahoma City the next day, so I'll just have to go back there some day.

Next: the midwest