Reflections from a Week of Vagabonding (Pt. II)

Vagabonding
Monument Valley at dusk is simply magical. Pictures might be worth a thousand words, but experiences are worth a million.

Last week, I wrote about my first 11 days on a cross country road trip that took me and my girlfriend from the Pocono Mountains in eastern Pennsylvania to the arid desert of northern Arizona. I also discussed the value of meaningful travel, the merits of a road trip, and why you should set aside all excuses and just go! If you haven’t seen it, or are still having doubts about taking a trip, here’s the link to that post.

Today, I’ll be writing briefly about the past eight days of my road trip and the observations I’ve had over that time. Due to heavy travel over the weekend, I did not post on Friday or Monday, so I will be publishing new posts each of the remaining days of this week.

Please enjoy, and challenge yourself to experience something new!

The Tale of Two Countries

Mile after mile, acre after acre, cornstalk after cornstalk, America gradually transforms as you make your way from one end to the other. You begin to notice that America is divided into two distinct halves.

If you are more inclined toward adventure and freedom, you’ll probably enjoy driving from east to west. If you are inclined toward structure and all of the trappings of modern civilization, travelling west to east might be for you.

If you are more a fan of thick green pastures, perhaps the east is where you want to be. If tan and red rocks and mountains are more up your alley, go west.

If you like laid back, easygoing, sparsely populated areas, the west is calling you. If you like the more edgy, bustling, and crowded atmospheres, head east.

The eastern U.S. tends to value man-made monuments, while the western U.S. tends to value time/nature-sculpted monuments.

Obviously these aren’t meant to be absolute judgments. But these observations are true, more often than not.

Whichever predisposition, many people discount the value of middle America, if only by referring to it as a collection of “fly-over states.” Sure, there is not much to do in rural Iowa, but when you really take the time to appreciate the vast and endless farmland that feeds the rest of America, you realize just how much we depend on it.

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    From State to State

    Let’s zoom in a little. On any cross-country road trip, you will be amazed at the subtle differences you notice when crossing from state to state:

    • Pavement – When you cross the official border into a new state, the first thing you’ll notice is the difference in pavement. Whether it is asphalt or concrete depends on how heavily traveled the road is. Color largely depends on whether the material is locally sourced. And when you get out past the flat plains, be prepared for the only paved roadways to be the interstate highway.
    • Roadwork – Each state seems to have their own philosophy about the importance of roads. Ironically, the states with the better roads are also the ones with the most road work. You would think New Mexico, which has the worst roads by far, would devote more resources to fixing their roads. On a long road trip, if speed and flow is of importance to you like it is for me, road work is a large (and common) aggravation.
    • Speed limits – Another small difference that might not bother some all that much. I’m not exactly sure what the difference is between New Mexico’s 70 mph and Utah’s 80 mph, but it seemed to me at first glance that the speed limits in each state are inversely correlated with their tolerance for cannabis. Hmmmm…
    • Change of scenery – I’ve never watched the show “How the States Got Their Shapes,” but it seemed like each state’s borders, regardless of how straight and seemingly arbitrary, were purposely drawn for the landscape (among other politically motivated reasons).
      • Heavily mountainous and green areas of Colorado tend to cease at the border and give way to the red rocks of Utah.
      • The salt flats of western Utah give way to the golden, hilly landscape of eastern Nevada.
      • The cacti and the red deserts of Arizona give way to the flatter, browner/tanner/greener landscape of New Mexico.
      • Flat land is reserved for the middle states of Nebraska, Kansas, and Oklahoma. Flowing hills seem to begin in Missouri and Illinois.
      • And many more examples…
    • Attitudes of people – The more south and the more west, the nicer and more relaxed the people are. But with the good comes the bad, as these people tend not to feel the need to wear masks.
    • Architecture – Like roadways, you can tell that lots of rural buildings tend to be closely related to the local rocks. New Mexico has the pueblo-style adobe structures. Arizona too, yet color gradually goes from tan to red as you travel west.
    • Cow populations – One of the peculiar things I noticed was how different the cows in each state are. Arizona cows seemed to be lazy (probably conserving energy in the hot sun), Utah cows seemed to be more active, New Mexico cows were underfed and lanky, Texas cows were beefy and were packed into their confines like sardines. Perhaps this says more about the priorities of farming in these states.

    These are just some examples of experiences you might have with a keen sense of awareness. Take a trip of your own to see what you might find!

    Smartphone Pictures Worth a Thousand Words (and some more words)

    Northern Utah

    Bar none, one of the coolest places I’ve ever been to: the Bonneville Salt Flats.

    Road trip: Bonneville Salt Flats
    Road trip: Bonneville Salt Flats
    Road trip: Bonneville Salt Flats
    Nevada

    When you think of Nevada, you probably think of Las Vegas and Reno. You probably imagine a lot more happening in this state than many of the other western states. But I hate to break it to you, there is not much to speak of in Nevada. And during the era of Covid-19, even Las Vegas was a ghost town (relatively).

    Road trip: Northern Nevada open road
    Southern California

    We originally hadn’t planned to go all the way, but it would have felt incomplete had we just stopped in Arizona. Good thing we didn’t! Finally seeing the ocean after 5,000 miles of driving was a pretty cool feeling.

    Road trip: Sunny southern Cal
    Road trip: Sunset on Redondo Beach
    U.S.-Mexico Border

    People where I’m from near Philadelphia think Arizona heat is somehow better because “it’s just dry heat.” Well, so is the stovetop! Experiencing the true power of the Arizona summer sun = getting sunburn in the car after driving for 10 minutes.

    On the way to our stop in Bisbee, Arizona, near the border (a really cool town if you want to get away, yet experience a social atmosphere), we passed through Yuma, Tuscon, and Tombstone.

    Road trip: Shootout at the O.K. Corral

    I wasn’t able to snag a good picture of it, but if you’re wondering, “THE WALL” is little more than a fence.

    New Mexico

    New Mexico was interesting for two big reasons: Border Patrol and Breaking Bad. If you’ve ever watched Breaking Bad, you might recognize these pictures.

    Road trip: Walter White's house
    Road trip: Los Pollos Hermanos, A.K.A. Twisters
    Road trip: Inside Los Pollos Hermanos

    If you don’t live within 100 miles of a border, you might not have been aware that there are checkpoints scattered throughout these areas that serve as a second line of defense to the actual border. With a heavy law enforcement presence south of Albuquerque, it was almost inevitable that we’d have an encounter with police on this road trip.

    And sure enough, we did get pulled over. With bags piled in the trunk and on the back seat, I was anticipating a possible search. The first thing the agent did was tap on our trunk to check for any signs of human trafficking. Luckily, he was very nice and cordial. He only asked a few basic questions and we were back on our way.

    The key, if ever pulled over by law enforcement in border zones, is to just relax, be honest, and be calm. Within the innocent questions they ask, if they sense any sign of unease or unnatural interaction, it could be cause for a search of your car. And whether it’s just wasted time or the confiscation of your recreational substances that you are worried about, searches are not ideal.

    One thing is for sure: the people who live near the border are subject to a life of intense scrutiny.

    Texas

    Our Texas experience was limited to I-40 across the northern stump of Texas through Amarillo. The entire expanse of this part of the state was dotted with windmills as far as the eye can see. And as the sun set, we were treated to the most massive thunderstorms I have personally seen. Luckily for us it was all in the distance.

    In our stop in Amarillo, we had some pretty awesome Texas barbecue. It is rare that something exceeds your expectations, especially if it has been built up over time, but true Texas barbecue certainly did.

    North Texas is lined with windmills
    Windmill in North Texas
    Oklahoma

    By one huge stroke of perfect timing, we happened to be crossing through Tulsa, Oklahoma on the afternoon of the President’s first “big” rally of this election year. Driving through the heart of the town, it was a powerful feeling I’ll never forget—people from all parts of the political spectrum, flanked by endless lines of police and armed guards, converging on the BOK Center in downtown Tulsa.

    The political and social divisions combined with the divisions forced upon us by COVID-19 were palpable. It was a scene marked by separation and conflict. Masks vs. no masks, guns vs. no guns, American flags vs. Confederate flags vs. no flags, power vs. powerless, wealthy vs. poor. The symbolism was powerful: each set of sides pitted against each other, meeting in the place where east meets west. It was truly a tale of two countries in more ways than one.

    If our road trip showed us all of America and its endless beauty and infinite promise, then this particular day, in this particular location, represented the emptiness, the pain, the anguish, the suffering, and the misery that we have all endured so far in 2020.

    It is my hope and my belief that we can all come together, work together, and build the future of this country together. While Oklahoma didn’t offer much more than farmland and warm weather, it certainly offered a powerful perspective and a powerful reminder of as we move forward together into an uncertain future.

    Missouri

    Passing through Missouri was uneventful other than driving through the Ozarks (no they didn’t film Ozark here) and seeing the Gateway Arch in St. Louis. A fitting way to return from a distant excursion to the west!

    Gateway Arch in St. Louis

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