I think we can all agree on that.
I think most people will agree it would be terrific if we could fast forward 2020 to wherever the end of Covid-19 lies. Most of us would like to get away from all of the restrictions and have a “normal” life again. Unfortunately, “normal” will probably be something very different from what we have all known before. My read on all this is that we probably have another 2 years before we come out the other end of this. At that time, it is very likely everything we have come to know as “normal” will be very different.
- Meanwhile, there are no cruise ships departing from or going to the U.S.
- At least 170 countries have banned travelers from the U.S.
- Flying in an airplane is extremely foolish and we certainly aren’t flying anywhere in the foreseeable future.
- Travel via any mass conveyance at all is hazardous at best and smart to avoid.
So what do you do after you have binge watched everything on Netflix that even remotely passes for entertainment?
Jigsaw puzzles are fun, but how many of those can you realistically do before losing your mind and succumbing to cabin fever?
Well… At least until an abundance of states lock down their borders (unlikely) you can still do road trips. As long as you select underpopulated destinations, this can be very safe and interesting.
And that is exactly what we did.
I had a very big birthday recently and my wife said “How would you like to go on a road trip for your birthday?”
I immediately said “Hell Yes!” or words to that effect.
And the planning began.
One of our prerequisites was to pick destinations with more prairie dogs that people. Since we live in Texas, that puts us smack dab in the middle of the country, which is really convenient from a road trip perspective. The Texas border states include New Mexico, Oklahoma, Arkansas and Louisiana. Just the other side of these states are lots of interesting possibilities. We decided on destinations to include Monument Valley and Jackson Hole, Wyoming. I added Catoosa, Oklahoma, as that is the home of a Route 66 gem that’s been on my bucket list for years. I also added Amarillo, since I had yet to capture the Ozymandias Legs, another Route 66 oddity on my list.
Then we started doing the route analysis and timing. I can drive a 12 hour day, but I don’t want to do it every day. So we figured out the best way to break up this trip, and it came out to twelve days. Naturally we brought our “26 pounds of raise hell” barking throw rug, Slick.The.Dog. So we had to book pet friendly lodging and find restaurants that either had outdoor dining (the only smart thing to do in a pandemic anyway) or get takeout and either eat in the car or retire to our lodging. This was not terribly complicated, since lots of people travel with their critters.
Our plans looked like this:
- Day one: Dallas to Amarillo, Texas (roughly 5-1/2 hours of travel)
- Day two: Amarillo to Bluff, Utah through New Mexico and parts of Arizona (roughly 9-10 hours) where we spent 2 days and explored Monument Valley and Valley of the Gods.
- Day four: Bluff Utah to Jackson Hole, Wyoming (roughly 8 hours) we stayed here 3 days and explored The Grand Tetons and Yellowstone. This was truly spectacular.
- Day 7: Jackson Hole to Elk Mountain, Wyoming where we explored the surrounding area and Laramie for two days. We were going to take in Cheyenne, but ultimately decided to do other things.
- Day 9: Elk Mountain to Dodge City, Kansas for two days via Fort Collins, Colorado. This was our longest day driving. It was about 10 hours or so.
- Day 11: Dodge City to Catoosa, Oklahoma to capture the Catoosa Whale and spend the night in Tulsa. The Ambassador Hotel was spectacular!
- Day 12: Tulsa back To Dallas (5-1/2 hours or so)
Everything went fairly smoothly except for a substantial high speed collision out in the middle of Wyoming, which had all traffic in both directions stopped for almost 2 hours. Lots of us got our, walked around and killed time. It was about 93 degrees at this time. One couple got out a baseball and mitt and spent some time playing catch out on the highway. There were two ambulances, a fire truck and a care flight helicopter dealing with the carnage. The chopper was sitting on the ground with rotors off for over an hour. Finally the rotors powered up and I knew we were getting close to having the road clear. Sure enough, less than 10 minutes later they had the highway open and we were all back on our way. I never found out the status of the drivers and passengers, but at least one car looked like no one could have survived the damage.
The trip was truly spectacular. Slick.The.Dog was an excellent companion, Chief of Security and Navigator. For the first 3 days or so, he primarily occupied his usual spot on the center console, surveying the landscape for any signs of terrorists. Around the 4th day or so, he realized this was not a typical drive and proceeded to curl up on whomever was passenger at that time and catch up on his sleep.
We left Dallas early on August 1st, headed for Amarillo. We elected to take my wife’s 2017 Nissan Rogue, as it is a lot newer than my 4WD Chevy Tahoe and gets much better mileage. She had it serviced 2 weeks prior by the dealership, with instructions to “check everything” because we were going on a long road trip.
Road trips are always an adventure. Sometimes that “adventure” veers a little off course…
Well… About an hour into the trip, the A/C started acting up. You could hear the blower motor running full blast, but very little air was coming out of the vents. And it wasn’t nearly as cold as it should have been. Swell. So we started trying to locate anyplace en route that could service it. Numerous phone calls later, including to the dealership, we settled on a Firestone store in Amarillo (only place that would still be open when we got there) and continued on. It was 96º, so A/C would have been nice to have. After all our conversations with various service facilities, it was determined we were either low on Freon and / or the evaporator was frozen up. So we would turn off the A/C and open all the windows, ripping down the freeway at 80 MPH for about 20 minutes. Then we could roll up the windows and turn on the A/C for awhile and get it cold again. Remember… It is 96º. Slick.The.Dog, who has a very thick fur coat, said something to the effect of “WTF Dad?”. Rinse and repeat all the way to Amarillo. We finally rolled into the Firestone in Amarillo around 5 PM. They had a “Masks Required for entry” sign and of course we complied, as that is the smart thing to do. Out of 8 people in the waiting room, only 4 were wearing masks. Or at least wearing them correctly. <sigh>
Firestone determined the Freon we very low. The Rogue holds 1.1 lbs of Freon. It only had .4 lbs when tested. Roughly 1/3 of its capacity. Also… When it was serviced, they suggested replacing the cabin air filter and did so. Firestone found it was improperly installed, shoved hastily in place and partially crushed in the process. They removed and re-shaped it. Then reinstalled it. This would have obstructed air flow. So 90 minutes later we are back on the road to our Amarillo hotel with actual functioning A/C.
After we got the Rogue fixed, we of course contacted the Nissan dealership that serviced it. Their response was “we don’t check the Freon unless you request it.” How the hell would most people know to ask for that? Isn’t that the service department’s job? We had an extended conversation with the GM of Nissan’s dealership when we got back and they did the right thing by us.
Not surprisingly, we periodically have to stop to ring out our barking Chief of Security. And stretch our legs. And maybe switch drivers.
If you’re a photographer, you will likely find interesting things to capture in the process.
Like sunflowers and barbed wire.
After we unpacked in Amarillo, out the door we went to find and photograph the Ozymandias Legs in Amarillo, Brainchild of (deceased) Stanley Marsh 3, the Ozymandias Legs have been on my bucket list for years. And sunset is one of the best times to photograph anything. The setting sun has more color due to photo-chemical smog. When we arrived, another family was busily spray painting and photographing the “Legs”. They even brought their own ladder to get up on the pedestal. So we waited. And walked Slick.The.Dog around the prairie. Avoiding the petrified cow patties and fire ants, we killed a little time, then went back to capture the “Legs”. They were everything I had hoped for. Like Cadillac Ranch, it is expected that people will contribute their own uniqueness to the art with spray paint. So the “art” literally changes Every.Single.Day as visitors contribute their own individual touches to it.
Amarillo is full of really strange public art. The Ant Farm is responsible for all this wild art and Stanley Marsh 3 funded most, if not all, of the weirdness around Amarillo. There is a peculiar assortment of street signs installed randomly throughout the city.
If you have the time, there is a lot to see in Amarillo. We’ve been here on at least 3 occasions now and have not seen it all.
We hit the road early because we had a nearly 9 hour drive ahead of us. It will take longer than that because there is much to see along old Route 66 through the Texas Panhandle and New Mexico. As it turns out, our route also takes us through the eastern edge of Arizona (spectacular geological formations). We did the thorough Panhandle Route 66 crawl in 2013 and photographed Cadillac Ranch in 2011, so we did not take this section slowly. Except for Adrian. Adrian Texas is the exact midpoint of Route 66. There is a defunct establishment with the Texas flag painted on the east side of the building. This time it is unobstructed. The last time an old truck was in the way. So this required a stop to photograph it. And stretch our legs. And wring out Slick.The.Dog (look him up on Twitter and Instagram).
Along the way we spent a little time in Tucumcari New Mexico. This is my favorite stop in Route 66. There is more preserved Americana kitsch in this town than anywhere else on The Mother Road. And of course, things change all the time, so we have to go slowly through Tucumcari to check all this out.
As we got past Gallup New Mexico, the weather started to change. Ominous clouds were gathering and “weather” was certain. We are on the highway headed west when the skies open and we are caught in an absolute deluge. Even with windshield wipers on “High” it is hard to see.
Then the fun starts.
Fortunately not LARGE hail. Nothing over about pea-sized hail, but LOTS of it. And Slick.The.Dog is NOT happy about this, contributing his own barking to the cacophony. I finally had to pull over to the shoulder because I could literally not see through the deluge of hail. The highway was coated in white ice, so we waited it out for a few minutes.
Watch the video of it here:
Finally we were able to drive out of the storm. It took about 15 minutes before we cleared all the rain. You know the saying “every cloud has a sliver lining”? Well sometimes a hailstorm also has a silver lining. This particular hailstorm was exactly what we needed to scrub off the heavy coating of insects that had expired at high velocity all over the front bumper, grill and windshield of Karen’s Rogue.
So with a squeaky clean car, we continued west. As I mentioned before, we were surprised that our route took us through Arizona en route to Bluff, Utah. We were using Google Maps to navigate and the announcements let you know when the time zone changes or you cross a state line. So we would get these announcements every time something changed. And it went back and forth from Arizona to New Mexico a few times on this route.
We discovered this spectacular mountain range in Arizona during our undulations.
And off we went on our way to Bluff Utah. The scenery changes significantly upon crossing the border into The Beehive State.
We chose Bluff to spend a couple of days because of its proximity to Monument Valley and we found great lodging. Karen found great lodging. She is our social director and travel agent. Cute, too!
She found these two cottages on a sizeable plot with nothing of significance around us. We intentionally arranged our trip to include areas with more prairie dogs than people. Bluff is exactly that. There is a convenience store and a restaurant. That’s about it. The last census puts the population at 142. I think we can vouch for about 12 of that number.
The town is bracketed north and south by massive rock bluffs. Perhaps this has something to do with the name?
This was our view in the morning:
Spectacular, isn’t it?
There is a restaurant just the other side of the vineyard. We picked up food and brought it back to our cottage. Very civilized arrangement in a pandemic.
We took off for Monument Valley early the 3rd day. En route we saw a sign for Valley of the Gods, which looked like something we really needed to explore. And with a name like “Valley of the Gods” how can you NOT go investigate. As we turned off onto the dirt and gravel road into this spectacular area, our Google Maps assistant said “continue on this road for 4 miles” or words to that effect. This seemed like a manageable detour, so off (road) we went.
This is a narrow, uneven gravel road, interrupted by numerous dry washes. Fortunately it was dry. If you tried this and a rain storm popped up, you could be in some real trouble. We had no such problem. However… It turned out to be 17 miles and almost 2 hours to do the full Valley of the Gods. It is nothing short of amazing, but slow going. Lots of washboard surfaces coated in gravel.
It was well worth the time.
Here is one of our stops along the way. The numerous breathtaking rock formations will cause you to stop and photograph a LOT of things, so expect to spend at least 90 minutes going through here. When we were here there was a LOT of haze from the California wildfires. As you will see in the full gallery, it looks like a stone age version of Los Angeles in some examples. This required a lot of Photoshop processing to correct in many cases.
Once we came out the end of this detour, I discovered something else amazing. Some of the mountains exhibit a rainbow-like quality of colors and patterns. So before we could head out to Monument Valley, I had to find a good vantage point to capture this. I captured and panorama with my Samsung Galaxy S9, but also shot a series of images with the big camera (Canon 5D Mk IV) to be stitched together later.
Then we headed for Monument Valley.
Unfortunately, due to Covid-19, Monument Valley access is closed.
This doesn’t mean you can’t see Monument Valley, just that you cannot get IN to Monument Valley. So we had to be content with exploring the perimeter.
Here is an example of how badly the California wildfire smoke impacts Monument Valley.
One of my favorite shots en route to Monument Valley.
We pulled off the road and I found a fence I could line up with the center of this vista.
On the way back from Monument Valley, we discovered Mexican Hat. We missed it on the way out, because it’s hard to see when headed south. Coming back, though, we could see it in the distance, and there was a sign, as well. So of course, multiple stops were necessary to capture this fascinating rock formation from a variety of vantage points. The BIG lens (70-200 f 2.8) was required for this project.
We foraged for food and caught up on our sleep.
The next day we headed for Jackson Hole Wyoming
Another long day of driving. Over 11 hours to get to Jackson Hole from Bluff Utah. This route took us through Idaho up I-15 for awhile, so add one more state to the list.
En route to Jackson Hole, our path would wind along the Snake River for an extended period of time. This is another remarkable stretch of highway. The mountains, trees and river and quite spectacular. We were very happy to arrive in Jackson Hole after a very long day of driving. We spent 3 days as Snow King resort. Our room faced east on the top floor and the view was spectacular. The room had a really high ceiling and a balcony of sorts. A balcony in name only, it turns out, as it is not nearly large enough to put a chair on it and get around the chair. So while you can stand on the “balcony” — you probably don’t want to spend a lot of time on it. Also, there is a slatted partition between your “balcony” and the one for the adjacent room. So if you’re thinking you might have some privacy on your balcony — think again. The room (754) is beautiful. The bathroom looks new. The finish out is very nice.
It is walking distance to Jackson Hole.
Jackson Hole is a cute little town with a nice public square.
Lots of shopping and great places to eat.
Jackson Hole is well worth the stop.
When we were there, however, it was CROWDED. Lots of people, and many of them on their way to Sturgis. So not the brightest bunch. Not that I have anything against the annual Sturgis rally. But I rode Harleys for over 50 years. Yes. Fifty Years. And never felt the need to go to Sturgis. Particularly during a friggin’ pandemic.
But I digress.
There is a lot to do and see here in Jackson Hole. More-so during the Winter months when there is abundant snow. But even in the summer it is beautiful.
And Snow King is beautiful overall.
- There are no shelves or niches in our shower to hold soap, shampoo, etc.
- Not even a place to hang a washcloth.
- The mirror is the kind with a translucent strip around the edge for lighting.
- The lighting circuit does not work.
- The shower light does not work.
- There is no exhaust fan.
- There is no button on the phone for Housekeeping.
- 9 times out of 10 You cannot reach a human by phone.
- Any time you pick up the phone to reach the front desk, it will most likely go to voicemail. Pressing 0 to try and reach a different human will likely get you the same result.
Essentially, this room is incomplete.
Eventually reaching a human about why the lights don’t work in the bathroom yields the following response: “These lights don’t work on some floors.”
Well… These rooms are not exactly a bargain. It seems that everything should work for these prices.
- There are the typical luggage carts available in the lobby.
- To get to the elevators from the lobby:
- You have to go up 2 sets of stairs.
- They have added (tiny) ramps to the edge of these stairs to accommodate the carts.
- These ramps are STEEP.
- It takes two people to get a fully loaded cart up one of these ramps.
- The carts do not fit in the elevator.
- You have to wedge the cart into the elevator at an angle to close the doors.
- Therefore you can only fit yourself and a cart in the elevator at the same time.
Just in case you are considering staying here.
The Grand Tetons are just outside Jackson Hole. In fact, Jackson Lake is between the highway and the Tetons at one point, which makes for a spectacular vista.
Continuing past the Tetons, we head for Yellowstone. We only have a day to do all this in, so we opt for waiting to see Old Faithful erupt and explore some of the other geysers. Once you reach the entry to the park on the south side, it is around 39 miles to actually get to Old Faithful. A LOT of people are faithfully (see how I worked that in) for the big event. We positioned ourselves far away from the crowd as there was NO SIGN of social distancing on the boardwalk.
The wait was well worth it, and I have it on video, as well as lots of stills.
Here is the video:
Then off to visit some other geysers…
And back to Jackson Hole for the night.
Low key day of exploring Jackson Hole and taking some much needed downtime. The next day will be a very long drive.
We wanted to explore some of the Old West cities, famous throughout the history of the Western Expansion. So Laramie and Cheyenne were high on the list. We try and avoid the cheap chain motels, though, so that left Laramie and Cheyenne off the list for lodging. In Elk Mountain, though, we found this delightful hotel that is more along the lines of a B&B. The Elk Mountain Hotel is a gem.
The town of Elk Mountain has a population of around 100. Again, more prairie dogs than people.
So off we go.
This is a short driving day. Only a little over 5 hours to get from Jackson Hole to Elk Mountain.
Unless there is a massive wreck that closes the highway…
Which there was.
And it caused about an extra 2 hours of travel time.
But there is really not much to see or photograph between Jackson Hole and Elk Mountain. Nothing. Pretty much as flat and featureless as Kansas.
So we didn’t arrive in Elk Mountain until late in the day, but that was fine with us.
Elk Mountain has a population of about 100 or so. There are a handful of small municipal buildings, a smattering of residences and the No BS RV Park. Seriously. That’s the name. We stayed at the Historic Elk Mountain Hotel. It is gorgeous. The food is elegant. The coffee is OK. I prefer my coffee completely opaque. But it was close enough. Overall, we highly recommend this for lodging. It is a pretty area and the accommodations were very nice. And critter friendly. Slick.The.Dog gives is two paws up.
Day trip to Centennial Wyoming for lunch. Slick.The.Dog thoroughly enjoyed the trip — and lunch. We ate at the Bear Bottom Bar & Grill. They have a lot of outdoor seating and a live performance stage. Food and service were both great. This is a colorful little town and well worth the visit.
Then off to Laramie.
Laramie was not what we were hoping for. Not a lot of well preserved historic buildings other than the prison. There are some pretty remarkable buildings in the city and I photographed a few. But not the historic Wild West architecture we were hoping for.
Originally we had planned to head east to Cheyenne and then on to Dodge City. But this was to be one of our longest days at over 10 hours of driving and going through Fort Collins Colorado shaved about 45 minutes off the trip, so maybe we’ll make it Cheyenne another time. As it turned out, Fort Collins was delightful. We had breakfast at Ginger & Baker. They have lots of outdoor seating, the service was excellent and the food first rate. We really liked the feel of Fort Collins. It has that college town feel overall. We decided if we ever tire of Texas, this could be an option.
As we got to Burlington Colorado, the weather started changing. The skies filled with very ominous clouds and we got a nice soaking as we passed from Colorado to Kansas. Not surprisingly, Kansas was a featureless as we had expected until we got to Dodge City after a very long day of travel.
What a treat Dodge City was.
Dodge City takes full advantage of the Gunsmoke TV series legacy. This is a very colorful city with a remarkable number of grain elevators of immense size. We are accustomed to grain elevators in our travels. I have never seen anything of this scale elsewhere in our travels. The corn industry produces a massive amount of product, which requires world-class grain elevators to manage it all. Or at least so it seems. We counted a total of 5 of these massive grain elevators within the city limits.
They have a nicely preserved old Main Street and Boot Hill cemetery. This is all well worth the price of admission and we thoroughly enjoyed it, even though it was 103º Slick.The.Dog tired out pretty early on and we retired to the hotel for some much needed climate control. We were greeted with a spectacular sunset that day as we too Slick out for his evening walk. We also discovered a miniature Hollywood Bowl in the nearby park. Apparently Dodge City takes their local music seriously.
We were impressed.
Dodge City to Tulsa Oklahoma
Well, actually Catoosa Oklahoma first.
This was a pretty short day of driving at around 5-1/2 hours.
We arrived in Catoosa right around 6 PM, so we still had some light. It had been raining and everything was saturated, but the rain stopped as we arrived at our destination. The Catoosa Whale. This is one of those oddball roadside attractions that makes Route 66 a continued draw to worldwide travelers. It has been on my list for years and, while no longer maintained or active as a paid attraction, it was everything I had hoped. A classic example of Route 66 kitsch.
We took some pictures of the whale, found a few other interesting things to explore and headed for our hotel in Tulsa. The Ambassador Hotel is a gem. This is a spectacular old world hotel. The service is impeccable and the room was by far the finest of our entire trip. Simply stunning. We passed some really interesting things in Tulsa, but it was getting dark and we had no time to explore. We are adding Tulsa to our list of future destinations.
We really enjoyed the Utica district, where we had breakfast prior to departure.
The short drive home.
Allowing Google Maps to take us home was quite an adventure. We zigzagged all through the Sooner State in what seemed to be a completely random order. We spent more time on the American Indian nations than U.S. soil. And it was fascinating. The landscape of Oklahoma is far more interesting than Kansas and we were thoroughly entertained on this last leg of the trip.
We saw casinos of all kinds, varieties and sizes. It seems every tribe has at least one tucked along the highway. They range from small and pathetic to massive and magnificent.
We also passed a fair assortment of refineries, which have their own unique attraction to someone like me. Naturally we had to stop a few times for photos and driving breaks. There were the usual (and not so usual) windmills and water towers along the way as well.
It was a lot of fun exploring the Old West on this trip. We had a great time and at no time did we feel like we had been gone too long or that we needed to hurry home. We are not going on another road trip in the immediate future, but given the state of the world, there will definitely be another probably before the year is out. Now to decide where to go next. We are thinking about the east coast for the fall leaves.
Watch the whole slideshow