Posted February 9, 2021 – Narrated by Carmen
“Road candy seemed to me a perfect summing up of the pleasures of driving through the Deep South. What I saw, what I experienced, the freedom of the trip, the people I met, the things I learned: my days were filled with road candy.”– Paul Theroux, Deep South
Even as full-time, free-ranging homo sapiens sapiens, these cross-country treks to beat the weather are a challenge. Leaving Point A with the goal of reaching Point B has all the thrill of a footrace with the starting-line excitement and the finish-line euphoria. But the real drama is in the unknown developments – the tension between A and B.
Generally speaking, travelers prefer the known to the unknown. That’s why cruise ships and airlines provide distractions – movies, booze, magic shows, contests and gambling – to relieve the tension of that ever-present hum of travel which most passengers find unnerving.
I love engines. The sound, the smell, the rumble. I get that from my dad, a mechanical engineer. Whenever his babies had trouble sleeping at night, he’d take us for a drive. The jingle of his keys signaled relief was on the way. Then, the crank of the starter, the intoxicating whiff of fuel, the purring of the engine, the crunch of gravel beneath the tires (still my favorite sound in the world) as the car backs out of the driveway … these sensations soothed and transported me into the world of sleep.
Uh-oh … maybe that’s why I’m kinda vulnerable to nodding off at the wheel … even after a full and satisfying nights rest. A trait easily managed with good strong coffee, right? Yes, but it’s complicated these days. Caffeine – my backstabbing friend – is betraying me in my old age.
When we were young and poor, Jim and I accomplished many caffeine-fueled cross-country drives, stopping only for gas.
Decades of entertaining that delicious black elixir of inspiration and energy has rendered the stuff a poison to me. A mere cup of half-caff in the morning keeps my brain’s terminal open all night re-routing old baggage. Even so, I don’t feel safe to drive the rig without a java boost. Now, these long cross-country journeys begin with a fresh Me and finish with a blurry caffeine-whipped Carmen plodding through a mushy week or two of withdrawal.
But until our eyes have seen enough, we will continue to embrace the annual, and sometimes bi-annual activity of playing chicken with extreme weather conditions while under the influence of one thing or another.
It’s the road candy that keeps us going
Rare and unusual scenery … Murmurations of starlings … Unusual cloud formations … Rusty wagons … Faded farm equipment … Signs pushing product that no longer exists … HoJo’s, Stuckey’s, Pea Soup Andersons, all but eliminated by interstate highways and cheap airfare.
The map above details the LIB Cali-Tenn Crawl: Four weeks in eighteen overnight locations with many free campsites. We saw much and we missed much more, but if we are lucky enough to pass that way again there’ll still be plenty left to chew on.
With plans to visit 559 Beer Brewery, we parked overnight in Clovis – the tenth fastest growing city in California.
We’re not ready to settle down, but Clovis with its proud hometown vibe and lovingly restored Oldtown has the stuff to change our minds.
The Links at Riverlakes, Bakersfield, California
Golf courses are great places to overnight in metro areas. On this sweltering hot Bakersfield evening, I heard someone call my name. It was Pete, a LIB follower, driving past in his golf cart. We had a pleasant chat about pre-retirement and planning for full-time travel. Pete, a truck driver, offered great tips about Hwy 40.
Shady Lanes RV Park, Barstow, California
On our way to Barstow, we pulled off at Keene Cafe for their traffic-stopping huevos rancheros. The shady outdoor dining yard under the oaks overlooking the valley is one of the best kept roadside cafe secrets in California.
We waited too long to stop by Elmer Long’s bottle-tree ranch.
Elmer passed away in 2019 and apparently the bird feeders hadn’t been filled since – yet, happy birds were everywhere. Maybe the bottles attract flying insects? I don’t know. No one was around to answer questions. It was a self-serve, free attraction.
We couldn’t even find a donation box. But the remote site, unmolested by vandals was open to visitors. All you have to do is push open the fake chain-lock on the gate.
Elmer’s life work – horrifying, hilarious and serene – is a totem to the sharp edge of western expansion. Elmer is gone but his found art installation still rips consumerism a fresh one, exposing the ironies forced upon our cheap, yet priceless land in this hard, but delicate existence, even as he celebrates our awkwardly beautiful lives.
That night, in hot and dusty Barstow, we found a nothing-special desert trailer park, but one that lives up to its name.
Mike’s Route 66 Saloon, Kingman, Arizona
The next morning we set out on Old Route 66, and pulled off for brunch in Ludlow.
The Ludlow Cafe is not the original cafe – but it had plenty of parking where we could have stayed overnight with the big trucks.
Thanks, but no. Sleeping with the big trucks is an act of desperation.
So we followed the railroad,
crossed over the Colorado River into Arizona,
and breezed through Kingman,
… to Mike’s Route 66 Outpost Saloon for some top-notch grub and shut-eye. We had the Taco Tuesday salads, with a perfect cowboy sunset on the side.
Woody Mountain Campground, Flagstaff, Arizona
Every year since LIB, Jim has arranged a birthday surprise. But considering the pandemic possibilities, I was expecting a lovely grilled salmon dinner at our charming site at the Woody Mountain Campground in Flagstaff.
I was stunned when Jim pulled off his annual October surprise – a formal five-course meal served by a real waiter. At Josephine’s Modern American Bistro, we celebrated my Beatle’s Birthday under the pines. He still needs me. He still feeds me.
We lingered in Flagstaff for a few days, but it rained for most of them. Someday we hope to stay for the fair-weather months.
McHood Park Campground, Winslow, Arizona
When the weather cleared we continued on Route 66 toward Winslow, our destination for the night.
The weather was gorgeous, so we thought we’d stay for a few days – hike the park and paddle Clear Creek – but that was not to be.
As we pulled into warm and sunny McHood Park Campground, we got that all-alone feeling which usually means we should check the weather report. Sure enough. Snow was predicted within 24 hours.
The next morning we toured charming Winslow and returned to the campground in the early afternoon to prepare for a 45-degree temperature drop.
The following morning we woke to the chill of frost.
We hitched up and pulled out of Winslow and stopped by Little Painted Desert County Park for the spectacular rim view of the canyon.
Freezing rain was on the way, so we switched on the furnace and prepared a hot breakfast and moved up the road toward Holbrook.
Crystal Forest Museum, Holbrook, Arizona
Holbrook is an outdoor mid-century museum. In normal times it is bustling with activity and fun. But it was ghostly quiet on this icy, covid day.
But our campsite (no hook-ups), compliments of The Crystal Forest Museum and Gift Shop was loaded with interests and kept us in the Route 66 spirit.
We huddled in the trailer, furnace full blast, playing oldies and grooving on the cotton candy sunset.
Petrified Forest National Park
The next frosty morning we woke to sad news. Our friend, Nina who had been sick for months, had passed. I opened the door, to see how world had changed.
It was so cold, but I just wanted to go for a walk. We brewed a pot of coffee, but skipped breakfast and drove a few miles to the Petrified Forest National Park.
We wore masks, as required, but no one was there.
It was just we three and these petrifications where ancient trees had come to rest after a violent act of nature – a Triassic flash flood.
On that morning, I had little interest in sightseeing but history would not be silent. And, as the sun came out from behind the clouds, these ancient trees asserted their message from the beyond, “All is not lost. Nothing is permanent. Look at us. We still have presence.”
We went back to the rig for a hot breakfast and coffee. Then we drove along the Badlands to Blue Mesa Trail to walk some more.
These mountains erode at least an inch per year.
Here, I felt my friend’s presence – her heart, her wit and the fierceness of her intellect.
This melting frost presented ideal conditions for the namesake color of this terminally ill range to come out in spectacular display.
Badlands. Now, there’s a word …
… A place bridging the trauma of death and the unbearable ache of grief that diminishes, incrementally, over time. Touché again, Nina.
Mobil Station, Chambers, Arizona
Okay. We slept with big trucks. No shame in it. Check that one off the list.
Route 66 Junkyard Brewery, Grants, New Mexico
We entered New Mexico, and crossed the Continental Divide.
And took the exit to Grants, as guests of the Route 66 Junkyard Brewery for the night – a fascinating adventure.
Check sleeping in junkyard/outdoor movie theatre/brewery/campground off the list.
We grabbed two chairs without snow on them and enjoyed some excellent brew in classic junkyard style.
If we had arrived on a movie night it would have been even more fun. This brilliant idea should be franchised.
Every town should have a junk yard/brewery/outdoor theater/campground. Add: weekend farmer’s market, dog-training school, running track … the possibilities are endless.
San Jon Municipal Park, San Jon, New Mexico
Leaving Grants, we drove up to the sweet little town of San Jon where travelers are welcome.
Free municipal overnight, no hook-ups camping is provided in a lighted park across the street from the police.
Interesting that wealthier towns than San Jon dismiss this service as unaffordable. The grounds are nicely kept with bathrooms, tennis courts and a ball field.
Comfort food was in order. So Jim rode his new Dolphin e-bike a couple of blocks to an authentic Punjabi Dhaba restaurant. These specialty trucking stops are sprouting up along US highways.
We also gassed up and filled our propane in San Jon. We are proud to spend money in cities where safe, clean, convenient parking and services are provided. Thank you, San Jon.
Lake Meredith National Recreational Area, Fritch, Texas
Next morning, we crossed over into Texas for some quiet time and spectacular sunsets at the Lake Meredith National Recreational Area.
We stayed for two days and every spare hour was spent exploring around the little town of Fritch and this sprawling national park. We’d have stayed longer but …
… a huge winter storm was on the way.
Fritch perked my foodie senses when I noticed a Tea Room. Evidently, high tea is a thing in this part of Texas. Well then, that settles it. When this pandemic is over we shall return for more fine free camping, kayaking, and some of that cowboy tea.
Lucky Star Casino, Clinton, Oklahoma
Still outrunning the winter storm, we entered Oklahoma.
We turned into the complimentary overnight parking lot for the Lucky Star Casino. The RV area was fully lighted, clean, patrolled, quiet and … completely empty. Uh-oh. We checked the weather for bad news. Seeing we were in the clear, we tooled around the asphalt but couldn’t find a level spot. So we parked and walked around. Certain the most level spot is at the top of the hill, we settled the rig in between two light poles. Still, it took every Tri-lynx leveler we own to keep Jim on his side of the bed.
Last Stop Store, Checotah, Oklahoma
The next morning, after passing through Oklahoma City, we were the delighted overnight guests of The Last Stop Store.
After purchasing some house-made southern delicacies, our host showed us to a concrete pad in the quiet suburban neighborhood of Checotah where we watched the election results.
Gulpha Gorge Campground, Hot Springs National Park, Arkansas
To better our chances of securing a first-come, first-serve spot at Hot Springs National Park in Arkansas, we pulled out of Checotah at first light.
That crisp Autumn Arkansas morn slowed the world down several beats to that familiar and most-manageable southern rhythm that we love so well.
We pulled into Hot Springs National Park at about 11 am in the morning and scored the last open space at Gulpha Gorge.
The next day we moved to a better space on the riverbank.
The leaves were peak color. We spent long hours hiking the trails.
This park is a coveted Autumn destination. We were lucky to be here.
Bass Pro Shop, Memphis, Tennessee
We drove into Memphis on a rainy day.
I am acquainted with Memphis because my niece, Beth, was treated for cancer here at Saint Judes Children’s Hospital.
Memphis is a city of heroes with a heart-wrenching history of reaching out to offer a helping hand …
… and it is beautiful. The virus kept workers and residents home, so the streets were hauntingly quiet.
We parked, compliments of Bass Pro Shop, housed in the world’s tenth largest pyramid.
The parking area where RVs are allowed is under the bridge.
It was lighted very brightly and patrolled with 24-hour security: Sleeping under a major urban highway. Check.
The sun came out the next morning, so we took our Dolphin e-bikes to town for coffee and pastry and this exhilarating two-hour spin on Big River Trail.
Cracker Barrel Old Country Store, Dickson, Tennessee
We were two days short of a self-imposed two-week period of isolation (no indoor shopping or visits with friends) before arriving to my sister’s house. So we ambled for a couple of days through Tennessee. Thank you, Cracker Barrel for the sweet parking lot digs.
Del Monaco Winery, Baxter, Tennessee
This was our second visit to Del Monaco Winery, and we knew what to expect, so we crossed the tracks into the grounds …
… and took our usual quiet spot beside the tracks which are not used at night.
Wearing the last of our clean clothes, we sat alone on their magnificent porch.
The staff – alerted to our delicate circumstance – applied every required procedure to deliver a delicious no-contact southern dinner – and made us feel like royalty.
Deborah and David’s House
The next morning Beauty had to take a serious dump. We would be dry camping at my sister’s house way up in the mountains far from any services. So we stopped by Cumberland Mountain State Park to perform the honors.
For a small fee, we were able to maintenance our tanks to squeaky-clean perfection. Cumberland Mountain is a dreamy park – rustic and woodsy – with all the perks. We would stay here if we didn’t have our own private campsite nearby.
That afternoon, we arrived safe and sound to our Smoky Mountain destination.
So, the road to my sister’s house is really, really long, but with plenty of excellent eye-candy along the way. And, at the end, I have a concierge medical service from a registered nurse who will guide me through the symptoms of caffeine withdrawal.
If you want to see our exact route, click here.
*photos in this post (unless otherwise noted) were taken and copyrighted by Living In Beauty.