…and we’re driving to California to take JD to school.”
“Wait. You’re driving?”
We got mixed reactions when we told people we were driving from Chicago, IL to Calistoga, CA so that JD, my significant other, could start school at the Culinary Institute of America (CIA), Greystone Campus in St. Helena, CA, but incredulity was the most common response.
We were, in fact, driving to California… in the middle of winter. Even though we were taking the southern route, there was still a chance of weather delays as we left Illinois to head southwest toward Missouri, then west through Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and finally California.
Five states in five days, not counting Illinois and California. Although we should count them, each of them took the good part of a day to get through, especially California, so seven states in five days.
Our start at 5:00 AM on December 26, 2017 was accompanied by nerves, excitement, and sub-zero temperatures. The Buick was laden to capacity with among other things, JD’s cooking gear, bicycle, and two bonsai plants, along with my own stuff. It was a slow-moving sedan that pulled out of the driveway on that dark and cold morning.
I think there is something special about the open road in the American psyche; heading west, toward adventure and the freedom of the open road. In the lore of western tales, people who were “heading west” were heading toward something new and exciting, even if they weren’t sure exactly what. In our case, we were heading toward approximately 18 months of separation punctuated by my frequent visits to Napa. While it would be difficult, I was rather excited that I would be visiting Napa so many times that I would be able to explore at my leisure. It surprised me that I’ve never been to Napa; I was raised in Southern Oregon, and had been stationed in Monterey, CA, a mere two hours away. These were some of my thoughts and we pulled out of the driveway to start a new phase of our lives.
Our first day took us to Springfield, Missouri. We had booked an Airbnb that included dinner and breakfast the next morning. We arrived at the house in a state of relief and extreme fatigue. It had been a long and tiring journey, with senses on high alert driving through Midwest weather; snow, cold, and cloudy darkness. Illinois had seemed like it would never end.
Our hosts gave us a warm welcome and a tour of their home, which was very neat, and quiet until we got to the family room. At that point, the quiet was shattered by the barks of eleven irresistibly cute long-haired Chihuahuas. My fatigue instantly disappeared. Those little dogs with their expectations of pets and attention cheered me up instantly. I couldn’t stop laughing at these adorable little creatures, that we immediately dubbed the “Chihuahua flash mob,” vying for my attention and pets.
Every single day of our trip was filled with interesting sights, some of which sadly, we had to skip like the Grain Elevator Museum in Atlanta, IL along old Route 66. But I finally, for the first time in my life, saw the St. Louis Arch in Missouri. It was barely visible through the daytime darkness, snow, and clouds, so the video I took on my phone as JD was driving through construction is shaky and blurry. Museums we missed in Missouri include the Jesse James Wax Museum, the Flying Saucer Museum, and the Vacuum Museum. As museum lovers, we would’ve stopped at some, but we were on a mission, to get to Calistoga by December 30.
I must admit, I was dreading Oklahoma. I wasn’t really sure what I imagined, nothing, maybe, but I didn’t think there would be much to see. However, it turned out to be one of the most memorable parts of our trip. A good night’s sleep, sunshine, and double-digit temps contributed to my good mood, so in a moment of spontaneity, I suggested that we stop at the Hard Rock Casino in Tulsa to check out the gift shop. The casino itself, sparsely populated with early morning gamblers, smelled of stale smoke and made a slightly depressing contrast to our high spirits and the clear sunny sky. However, we had a great time picking out souvenirs for friends and family.
Because our days were so long, stretches of monotony were inevitable, so even the smallest thing could cause squeals of delight like the sign in Oklahoma City for “Garth Brooks Boulevard.” Because I had been a fan at the height of his popularity, I made JD take a picture of it. Anything to pass the time.
It was also in Oklahoma that we fell into a routine. We started no later than 7:00 AM and drove eight hours a day. JD drove in the morning and I took the afternoon shift. Those few hours of the day always seemed to be the longest, exacerbated by boredom and extreme hunger bordering on ravenous.
Heading into Amarillo, Texas at the end of Day 2, we had one thing in mind, “Barbeque”, mouth-watering barbeque. We found barbeque heaven tucked in a strip mall under a yellow awning. Dyer’s award-winning Texas barbeque was like a long-awaited banquet. The place was almost empty at this early dining hour, so we got a table in front of the blazing fire. The heat felt good after a day of sitting in a cramped car with bonsai trees, snacks, and Hard Rock Casino souvenirs. I’m typically averse to messy finger food, but this barbeque was begging to be slathered in sauce and eaten with my hands right off the bone.
It was still dark when we left Texas the next morning. As we headed west, we saw a 180-degree sunrise at our backs. The contrast of the pinks and oranges with the Texas dust was made all the more beautiful because there was nothing to block our view, just wide-open spaces as far as the eye could see. It was worth getting up for.
New Mexico and Arizona
Traversing New Mexico took up all of Day 3. The I40 corridor, despite its isolation was interesting. In Kirkland, NM we saw a gas station sign and naturally assumed they would have a rest room. I could tell that there was no rest room when I entered the cramped shop and the guy behind the counter responded to my inquiry with “Next rest room is 15 miles west” without looking up. The man watching TV in the middle of the shop completely ignored us. Funnily enough, there was a post office adjacent to the shop. No restroom, but a post office. We finally made it to the restroom, and along the way stopped to take a few pictures. The highway was almost completely deserted, so we were able to stop in the middle of the road. Later we stopped at Cline’s Corners truck stop, which has operated 24/7 since 1934.
As we got closer to Arizona, I started to get a bit giddy. JD had never been to the American Southwest, and I was excited to show him the state where I lived for five years. She didn’t disappoint. It was 60 degrees at the Welcome Center and I took so many pictures of red rocks, acting like I had never seen them before, so happy was I to be back in Arizona.
We stayed in Holbrook, and it was much to our chagrin that we didn’t have time to drive through the Petrified Forest National Park. That is when we starting making plans for our return road trip putting the Petrified Forest at the top of our list. As usual, we were hungry, but also energized. We had long since shed coats and didn’t need them in the evening at all.
Although only three days had passed, the Midwest seemed like a distant memory. In Arizona the sky seemed bigger, there was nothing to impede desert and mountain views and I felt like I had room to move, even though I was spending eight hours a day in a cramped car. After the low hanging clouds and grey days of the Midwest, the mountains were a novelty and color and mountains were a shock to my eyes.
In Arizona, the stops got longer and we weren’t driving as much. Early in the morning of Day 4 we witnessed (another) gorgeous sunrise at a rest stop perched atop some red rocks. It was a magnificent vantage point and if I lifted my head just so, the highway disappeared from view, leaving nothing but blue sky and brilliant colors to signal the start of a new day.
Our next stop, Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff, Arizona where I was pursuing my Masters in English, was long-planned. We walked around the nearly deserted campus photographing the mountains getting some fresh air and waited for the bookstore to open. We weren’t the only ones waiting. We got to talking to a man who had applied for a master’s program at the school many years ago. He ultimately didn’t go to school there, but still wanted a piece of it, perhaps for the same reason I did, to have something to remind him of a particular moment in his life.
We went through an actual checkpoint at the California border on the way to our “Day 4 checkpoint”, Barstow, CA. The sign said, “All cars must stop.”. This was an actual conversation:
Me: I wonder which line will be the shortest.
JD: Let’s see what the other cars do. We may not need to stop.
Me: But the sign says “All cars must stop.” Why do you think we wouldn’t have to?
JD: Well, let’s just see.
We did have to stop, as I figured we would at the agricultural checkpoint that monitored plants and fruits and vegetables entering the state. My mind whirred, “Do I tell him about the oranges in the bag? The dried fruit?” I was relieved when JD answered, “Two bonsai trees” when asked, “Do you have any plants or fruits?” They didn’t care about our apples or dried cherries.
As we pulled into Barstow, I couldn’t help but think that the hard part is over. We just had one more thing to do the next day, drive over half the length of California, then we were there.
Throughout our trip we had been pretty good about eating reasonably. However, the diet deteriorated, once we crossed that agricultural checkpoint. Our first meal in California was In-n-Out burger. We had the same idea as about 200 other people who were also clamoring for burgers, shakes and fries on that day that was warm enough to eat outside. That was followed by a Burger King breakfast the next morning, and Del Taco chili cheese fries for lunch. The purchase of oranges, avocados, and unshelled almonds at a roadside stand just west of Barstow helped to assuage the guilt of junk food consumption.
Lumbering up the state in the Buick, whose patience we had severely tested over these past four days, the Napa Valley began to achieve near-mythical status in our minds. As we got closer, the excitement was palpable, yet nerves were stretched. Driving around the San Francisco Bay Area in a loaded down Buick is a lot different than driving across New Mexico where you don’t see or pass another car for miles.
We finally made it to the magnificent Airbnb just north of Calistoga, a wooded oasis with a retention pond, and a dog named Bella, who showed us around when we took our walks. Perhaps the best part was knowing that I could sleep in the next day.
The most recent road trip I had done before this was in 2000 when I moved from Arizona to Chicago. I loved being on the open road, and this trip brought back those memories, like the first time I saw the World’s Largest Cross just outside of Amarillo. I remember rolling into Chicago and being in awe of the city’s size and the speed at which it moved, knowing that good things were on the horizon.
I felt similarly when we arrived in the Napa Valley; taking in the endless vineyard-covered hills, Main Street St. Helena, and the Napa Wine Train. Although the trip was over, the adventure had just begun.