Cross-Country, Part 8 (Bonus!)

Finally the end.  Or was it?

We’d driven most of the way across the United States.  Then we spent a week in Phoenix, Arizona.  However, we weren’t completely done.  Our rental home agreement ended two days before our return flight so we needed to spend a little time somewhere else.  Originally my wife figured we could go down to Tucson.   Instead we completed the cross-country journey by heading towards San Diego on Interstate 8.  I explained some of that in an earlier episode so I won’t repeat how we came to that decision.  Nonetheless it appended a bonus segment onto the trip and a few more things to talk about

Yuma Territorial Prison

Prison Cells

Very few communities of any size existed anywhere between Phoenix and San Diego (map).  In fact, pretty much only Yuma stood out.  It rose from the desert just on the Arizona side of the line, about half-way along our six hour drive.  That made it a perfect place to stop and stretch our legs.

Originally I wanted to cross into México at the Andrade – Los Algodones border station a few miles west of Yuma.  Looking at Los Algodones on Google Street View (image), it seemed the town existed primarily to provide cheap medical services and pharmaceuticals to retirees from the United States.  I figured we’d walk around, maybe grab some lunch and perhaps some souvenirs.  I even brought our passports.  My wife never felt comfortable with the idea and she vetoed it at the last moment, probably for good reasons.

So we made do with what we could find in Yuma.  A quick search of the Intertubes turned up the Yuma Territorial Prison.  I’ve visited old prisons before so it seemed like a worthy place to spend an hour or two.  The prison opened in 1876 — long before Arizona statehood — and housed prisoners until 1909.  The strangest bit of trivia I discovered there was that the local high school sports team calls itself the Criminals as a result (photo).


Dunes

Dunes

I’d never driven this particular stretch of interstate before so it came as quite a surprise when we crossed into California and the terrain transformed into a sea of sand.  We’d entered the Imperial Sand Dunes Recreation Area.  Nobody can say definitively how this feature formed.  However, a prevailing theory focused on sands that blew from the beach of an inland lake that existed when the Colorado River took a different course than it does today.  Regardless, it seemed out of place and somewhat otherworldly.  Lots of people seemed to be having a good time running their dune buggies up and over the hillsides though.


Plenty of Rest

Rest Below Sea Level

Twelve Mile Circle once bemoaned the decline of public restrooms along interstate highways.  That didn’t seem to be a problem along I-8.  Few services and fewer towns within this desolate stretch pretty much necessitated them.  Oddly, by some strange set of circumstances, we ended up stopping at all four of them on Interstate 8; two heading west and two returning east.

My favorite rest stop had to have been the one in California’s Imperial Valley (map).   This spot happened to be located remarkably close — barely more than a mile — from the lowest overland elevation in the entire interstate highway system.  This would put it at about 50 feet (16 metres) below sea level.

We crossed the valley and then headed up into the Laguna Mountains. There we encountered another anomaly, one of the widest splits between opposing lanes on a U.S. highway.  Interstate 8 sure packed a lot of entertainment into such an “empty” stretch, at least for those of us fascinated by weird geography.


San Diego

Bea-Eater Birds at the San Diego Zoo

Finally we dropped down from the mountains and reached the Pacific Ocean at San Diego.  The drive truly became cross-country.  The next day we returned to Phoenix and then flew home the following morning.

Now the trip ended.


Articles in the Cross-Country Series:

  1. The Plot Thickens
  2. Weatherford Art Thou?
  3. County Counting
  4. Zoos & Brews
  5. The Eastern Half
  6. The Western Half
  7. A Week in Phoenix
  8. Bonus!

See Also: The Complete Photo Album on Flickr

Cross-Country, Part 7 (A Week in Phoenix)

We drove for five long days and finally arrived in Arizona.  However, the adventure did not end there.

Phoenix had always been the ultimate goal.  Our decision to go on a road trip sprang from that choice.  My wife and younger son wanted no part of the drive and flew to Phoenix instead.  There they settled into a rental home we found on Airbnb and waited for me and the older son to arrive by car.  We finally got there and still had a bunch of days in Arizona ahead of us.

Water in the Desert

Goodyear, Arizona

The whole reason behind our destination tied to my wife’s desire to run a specific race.  She chose a rental home near the upcoming race in the Phoenix suburb of Goodyear.  The housing development clustered on two man-made bodies of water called North and South Lakes (map), rather unimaginatively.   It all seemed fine on the mild January days we visited.  It even rained a little bit, helping to replenish the lakes.  I enjoyed gazing upon them and strolling around them too.  Still, I wondered what happened in summer.  How much of this precious water in the desert evaporated for such a meaningless decorative purpose?  How much longer can something like this last?

We also experienced a bit of irony.  My wife hurt her foot shortly before we left home and she couldn’t run.  We no longer had a reason to go to Phoenix.  However, by that point I’d already planned my route and I had no intentions of backing out.  I had counties to count.


Arizona Commemorative Air Force

B-17 Flying Fortress

I’d visited six zoos on the long drive with my older son.  Now it only seemed fair to spend some time with my younger son.  He loves vintage aircraft and enjoys visiting airplane museums.  That led us to the Arizona Commemorative Air Force in the nearby city of Mesa.  The main facility held a wide range of combat aircraft covering the history flight, with a particular focus on the Second World War.  An adjoining hanger included restorations in progress as well as fully-functioning aircraft that could roll onto the runways of Falcon Field Airport (map) and reach the skies.


City Lights

Nightfall in Phoenix

Even better, the museum offered flights on its antique warbirds.  They weren’t cheap although I’d just taken one kid across the country.  So the other one got a ride in a World War II Douglas C-47 Skytrain as night fell over Phoenix.  Plus I could rationalize it as a Christmas present.  We got to see the twinkling lights of the Valley of the Sun from a much lower altitude than a commercial jetliner.  We were so close we could even see Christmas decorations on people’s lawns.  The valley was remarkably flat and the roads aligned in a practically perfect grid.


Hole in the Rock

Hole in the Rock

I didn’t have to traipse far from town to experience the rugged terrain of the Sonoran Desert.  I simply headed towards Papago Park, right within the heart of Phoenix itself.  Imagine 1,500 acres of wilderness completely surrounded by suburban sprawl and that pretty much described the park.  It included a major zoo, a botanical garden filled with desert plants, miles of hiking trails, and fascinating geological features.

Hole-in-the-Rock (map) dominated the landscape, rising a couple of hundred feet above surrounding flatness.  The natural sandstone formation eroded naturally over a few million years.  Wind and water worked in concert to carve chambers in its surface, including one that cut entirely through the outcrop from one side to the other.  A sign at the trailhead explained that the ancient Hohokam culture considered this a sacred sight and tracked the position of the sun shining through the hole to mark planting seasons.  Hole-in-the-Rock served as something of a geological Stonehenge for these people.

An easy trail led to the window on the backside of the outcrop.  Most people stopped there and ventured no further.  The views of Phoenix were pretty amazing from that point.  However, feeling adventurous and probably acting younger than I should have, I had to continue up towards the summit.  I got there just fine.  Climbing back down was more challenging and a bit scarier.  Even so I managed and — since I’m able to write this — obviously I didn’t fall or injure myself.

Phoenix offered a nice counterpoint to our many days on the road.


Articles in the Cross-Country Series:

  1. The Plot Thickens
  2. Weatherford Art Thou?
  3. County Counting
  4. Zoos & Brews
  5. The Eastern Half
  6. The Western Half
  7. A Week in Phoenix
  8. Bonus!

See Also: The Complete Photo Album on Flickr

Cross-Country, Part 1 (The Plot Thickens)

Don’t get me wrong, I loved our trip to Australia and New Zealand last summer. I already want to return there and someday I will. However, my relentless need to count counties took a serious hit in 2018 as a direct result. My map barely changed as the year progressed. I gave up on the overwhelming task of visiting every single county in the United States many years ago although I still wanted to get a lot closer to the theoretical endpoint. I needed a plan and an ally.

Hatching the Plot


Arizona Border

I sensed an opportunity. My wife floated the possibility of a race she wanted to run over the holidays in Phoenix, Arizona. She sold it as a way to travel to a mild midwinter climate in an easily accessible location where various members of our extended family could join us. I said I’d think about it, and I did. Little did she know that I completely supported the destination from the beginning. However, I needed to figure out how I might be able to justify driving 2,300 miles (3,700 kilometres) instead of flying.

Maybe I could convince my older son that he should tag along and leverage that as a way to bolster my case. He’d already joined me on a couple of shorter drives when I focused on West Virginia’s northern panhandle and then again when I finished the state. We’d taken trips together that lasted two or three days and he had the right demeanor. However this one would be more than twice as long and it would involve five successive days of boring Interstate driving. I knew how to snag him, though. He loves zoos. I dangled the possibility of visiting up to six zoos between Virginia and Arizona and he took the bait.


Figuring the Route


I needed to stick to Interstate highways because of time constraints. In addition I wanted to capture as many new counties as possible since that was the whole point of the drive. Finally I knew the weather could be a wildcard. I’d have to be flexible and aware enough to bypass snowstorms if they emerged.

I couldn’t simply pick one route and apply my usual multiple layers of planning, or nail-down hotel rooms ahead of time, or input precise coordinates for GPS navigation. I had to develop four routes that I could shift between on-the-fly as the weather dictated. That led to the map above with separate options for northern, middle, mid-southern and southern routes. Actually, my working map provided considerably more detail such as hotel options for each potential stop plus a few additional sightseeing opportunities. I just wanted to offer a summary of zoos and overnight stays along various paths to illustrate the uncertainty.

The routes didn’t differ all that dramatically by time or by distance. They ranged from about 2,200 – 2,400 miles and 34 – 36 hours of driving. However, they differed quite significantly for county counting purposes. I could get somewhere between 26 and 36 new counties, and possible a few more with strategic jogs. Obviously I wanted to maximize that total if I could. The mid-southern route through Memphis, Dallas, and El Paso would provide the best opportunity if Mother Nature allowed it.


The Selection

I started watching long-range weather forecasts about ten days before departure even though I knew they wouldn’t be terribly reliable at that point. I guess I needed one more thing to worry about in addition to all of the other details I still needed to hash out. The forecast started coming into focus the last couple of days and the mid-southern route looked promising. I booked all of the necessary hotel rooms the night before we left, feeling pretty confident. We set out at dawn on Sunday, two days before Christmas, intending to reach Phoenix by nightfall on Thursday.

My wife and younger son, being the sensible ones, flew to Phoenix a couple of days after we left and would be there to greet us whenever we arrived.


Articles in the Cross-Country Series:

  1. The Plot Thickens
  2. Weatherford Art Thou?
  3. County Counting
  4. Zoos & Brews
  5. The Eastern Half
  6. The Western Half
  7. A Week in Phoenix
  8. Bonus!

See Also: The Complete Photo Album on Flickr