Friday, May 30, 2014

Guest Post: Naren's Cross Country Road Trip

I've always been a fan of road trips. Well, ever since I learnt how to drive. And in America, road trips are a way of life. A cross-country road trip from coast to coast was always on the cards, and when I had two weeks for the Christmas vacation, I knew it was the best chance to strike it off the bucket list.

The planning started around 2 months before the trip. I wanted to travel from California on the west coast all the way to Florida on the east, taking a route along the southern coast. This would help avoid the cold weather that almost all of the USA was grappling with. Thus the route I planned was:

Sacramento - Bakersfield - Lake Havasu City - Phoenix - Tucson - El Paso - Austin - Houston - New Orleans - Pensacola - Clearwater - Daytona - Miami - Key West



I wanted to drive one way and fly back home (driving all the way back would've been brutal). I had used AirBnB for most of my Californian road trip, but I wanted to explore CouchSurfing for this one. Thus, I started sending out requests to a whole bunch of people in all my stops along the route around a month before the trip. I didn't see a very high reply or success rate with my requests as almost everyone was out for the holidays. Nevertheless, I did manage to find hosts in almost all my destinations except Florida. One of my friends from Sacramento was supposed to join me for the trip, but couldn't as her parents were arriving for Christmas. I have to admit I did have apprehensions about doing the road trip all the way across the country all alone, but I finally decided to go through with it. Most of my friends thought I had gone crazy.

And so did the lady at the car rental agency, who couldn't believe that the drop off destination for the car was Miami, FL. She asked me at least 5 times to confirm I have the right destination on file. And when I told her I'm doing it alone, she was tempted for a fleeting moment to join me. Then she regained her senses and wished me good luck for my trip, moving on to her next customer. Sigh. Never mind.

My first destination: Bakersfield. I chose this place as it was the ideal pit stop to enter Arizona through Route 66 (which I will get to shortly). The drive was mostly boring and uneventful. My host was a Mexican fellow named Ever (short for Everado). Bakersfield is a major oil town, and Ever was working as an engineer at one of the petroleum companies there. I met him at a local brewery near his home with some of his friends from work. Clearly, his work was highly technical because when I asked him what he did, he gave me a really long answer that for the most part I couldn't understand. Anyway, just as we were finishing up, Ever noticed on his CouchSurfing app that there was a group of CouchSurfers in Bakersfield looking for a place to stay for that night. We picked them up from a nearby restaurant from where they had posted the emergency couch request, waiting for someone to reply. The group comprised 2 ladies from Poland and a guy from Argentina, who had been hitchhiking their way throughout the US. You read that right. Hitchhiking. The guy told me that he had been doing it for over a year then in Europe and the US, and that he had never had to spend a night on the road as someone or the other always came through to help him. I don't think I'd have the courage to do that ever, though. After downing a few beers and listening to their hitchhiking stories, we called it a night. I liked the way my road trip had started. The next morning, we dropped off the hitchhhikers on the road to Yosemite, hoping they'd find a ride. And I was off to Arizona through Route 66.

Dario, the guy from Argentina, the Polish girls and Ever
The signboards they used for hitchhiking :)
Route 66 is an old highway that used to be very popular in the 1950s, before it was replaced by the Interstate highway system. Remnants of cafes, restaurants and gas stations could be seen all along the highway today. Add to it the fact that you are the only one driving on the decrepit road and you get a pretty creepy driving experience. But I did come across a restaurant that is still functioning on this highway - Bagdad Cafe. This place should be popular with the tourists and road trip enthusiasts who drive on this highway (what other choice do they have, right?). The food isn't much to talk about, anyway. It's just a tourist trap where they oversell the whole Route 66 experience. A burger and a few photos later, I was headed to Lake Havasu City, a quiet little town situated on the shores of, well, Lake Havasu in Arizona.


Bagdad Cafe

Outside Bagdad cafe
My host was a girl called Felicia who was working when I reached, so I picked her up from work and we headed to her home. Felicia told me that she had just been on a tour of Europe with her mom and had just turned 21 a few weeks back. Surprisingly, it was her mom who introduced her to CouchSurfing and I was her first CouchSurfing guest. She gave me a little tour of the town, and told me that this unassuming town is a very popular destination for spring break. Really? Who goes to Arizona for spring break of all things!? She told me it gets pretty crazy during spring break, but that's about it. The town has little to offer from a traveller's perspective, but serves well as a pit-stop. My next stop - Phoenix.

Arizona is a pretty dry state. I wondered if it got its name from the pairing of the words "arid zone" (I checked later - there doesn't seem to be a definitive answer). But for Lake Havasu, there was little greenery on the way to Phoenix. Even Phoenix looks pretty "made up" with the trees looking out of place. My host in Phoenix was Nicholas, who greeted me with a homemade hamburger (that I greedily gobbled up). Nicholas had a very keen eye for design, as was evident from the small fixtures all over the place at his home. As we got to talking at a nearby Irish pub, we realized that I had a higher understanding of American culture than he did. I explained to him that this was because when and where I grew up, it was considered a cool thing to know all things American - music, movies, sports and everything else.

Lake Havasu
Nicholas suggested that I check out the "Apache trail" near Phoenix before I proceed to Tucson the next day. I'm happy I took his advice. The Apache trail is a "scenic" drive that goes along two lakes, lined by mountains dotted with the quintessential cactus trees all over the place, a scenery unique to Arizona. The surprising part though, is that the state highway 88, which comprises one portion of the trail, is actually a dirt road highway. The long winding dirt road through the mountains was an absolute delight to drive on. There were some tricky turns where I did slide off the road for a bit, but the Chevy Cruze held up pretty well thankfully!

The dirt road highway on Apache Trail
I was headed to Tucson next. My host was a German lady named Candace who was staying with her brother. It was Christmas Eve, and I was a little apprehensive about intruding their Christmas by being their guest. Thankfully, they didn't do Christmas. Instead, we spent the evening playing Call of Duty on the XboX. Hearing about my road trip so far, they suggested that I go to Mount Lemmon near Tucson. The ascent to the summit of Mount Lemmon presented a very serene view of the mountains surrounding Tucson rising up like islands from the sea of urban pollution. On the way, I was pulled over for speeding, but then was let go because it was Christmas, thank God! Mount Lemmon is actually a ski valley. Snow in Arizona was one of the last things I expected. I have witnessed snow in Grand Canyon, of course, but didn't expect to see any on this road trip anyway and was a pleasant surprise. I met a Mexican couple on the summit who were going home to Tijuana. They actually invited me over to Mexico - I was tempted to join them for a moment, but I told them I could not due to visa restrictions. It was time to leave Arizona for Texas.

View from Mt. Lemmon summit
The Mexican couple that invited me to join them
My next stop was El Paso. My host in El Paso, one Mr. Allen Phelps, was an elderly gentleman who knew how to cook. REALLY WELL! He lived alone in a home that was too big for one person. He mentioned that he has hosted a lot of couchsurfers there, like the Italian biking group who stayed over on a cross-country biking trip, the Dutch couple who came for the New Mexico balloon festival and also an Indian guy who was going from the Northeast to the southern most point of the Americas. Truly inspiring stories for travelers. I had reached his place pretty late at night and I had the longest leg of the trip to cover the next day to Austin. So I turned in early and set off for Austin the next day.

Texas is geographically a really big state. The gravity of that statement can only be understood by driving across the state. The drive from El Paso to Austin was a really long one, lasting almost 11 hours. And there was still a good 6 hours to go for Louisiana, the next state. Texas is called the Lonestar state, "to signify Texas as a former independent republic and as a reminder of the state's struggle for independence from Mexico", says Wikipedia. The authorities in Texas thought it was important to remind the drivers that they are in Texas, and as a result, you will find the Lonestar symbol everywhere. On the border when you enter Texas, highway signs, shops, rest areas, and even on some speed limit signs. You'd think one would remember the state they are in after driving almost 10 hours through the desert plains!

Shea was my host in Austin. She couldn't be at home when I reached her place, so I met her father Steve and her brother Nico. Steve spoke with a distincitve southern accent that reminded me of the narrator in the movie, The Big Lebowski. He has the biggest collection of vinyl records I have ever seen. Like thousands of them. And he also has a killer music system installed to play these records - you can hear the music from anywhere in the house! After a light dinner and some old school music, Steve and Nico gave me a small tour of Austin. I'm told Austin is a very lively town, although it was pretty empty owing to the Christmas holidays unfortunately. Austin being the "live music capital of the world", Steve took us to a honky-tonk where Ray Price covers were being played which I found thoroughly enjoyable. By the time we were back at Steve's home, Shea was back too. I found that she's one of the easiest persons to talk to. I remember chatting with her and Nico for about an hour before turning in. I made a mental note to definitely go back to their place if I visit Austin again.

Houston was my next stop, which was barely 3 hours away. Since I had a lot of time the next day, I thought of visiting some place near Austin. I remembered Shea mentioning a limestone pool near Austin and I decided to go there. It's a place called Hamilton Pool Preserve about an hour away from Austin. After having driven for almost a day through the dry plains of Texas from El Paso, I did not have a lot of expectations for this place. I think that partly contributed to my surprise when I reached there, because it was so beautiful and tranquil it looked heavenly. This is a popular swimming spot in the summer, but it was closed for swimming then and so there were not a lot of people around. I spent most of my day there mostly relaxing and clicking away. It was a good and much needed break from the constant driving, and was quite refreshing. And I was off to Houston. I had picked Houston because I wanted to take a break on the way to New Orleans, which would have been another long drive from Austin. Tony, my host in Houston, welcomed me with some homemade grilled chicken. He was working in PR and I could see why - he could connect with people very easily. He had to go to work early the next day so we called it a night and I was out of Houston the next morning.

Hamilton Pool Preserve, TX
Mississippi River. Runs through New Orleans
I was a little nervous about my next stop at New Orleans, because the guy who had accepted my CouchSurfing request failed to reply to any of messages asking for his number or his address. So I took a little detour to the coastal oil town of Galveston in Texas. After loitering around the beach there for a little while, I settled down at a Starbucks to send some emergency couch requests in the New Orleans CouchSurfing group. Hoping someone would respond to my requests, I started on my way to New Orleans. I stopped at Baton Rouge which was an hour away from New Orleans to check if someone had responded to my couch requests. None. Disappointed, I started looking at airbnb listings and for a moment, also considered crashing at a Walmart parking lot :) Thankfully, a fellow named Greg responded right then, saying he had a place to crash for the night. And off I went to NOLA.

Galveston Beach, TX
New Orleans has an old district called the French Quarter, and is pretty much the party town in the city. And Greg's apartment was a block away from Bourbon street, smack in the middle of the French Quarter. I reached his place pretty late at night, and he was coming down with a cold. After getting to know that I was a newbie to NOLA, he asked me if I planned to venture out. I told him I was kinda tired and planned to go to bed, maybe explore the city the next morning. He exclaimed that it was a sacrilege to do that staying in the French Quarter, and offered to show me around although he was a little under the weather. And it was the best night of my road trip. The details are a little hazy in my mind thanks to the "hurricanes" I had, but I remember a lot of laughing, dancing and roaming around the streets in the French Quarter. Let me just leave it at that :)
Beignets at Cafe Du Monde
The next morning, I decided a take a little walk around the town, and at the end of it, New Orleans became one of my favourite cities in the world. Maybe it was the sunny bright weather. Maybe the live jazz music being played all over the streets. Maybe the smiling faces everywhere. Or it may just be the beignets I had at Cafe du Monde. I'm sure you'll come to love this place as much as I did if you visit it. I was tempted to stay over there for a couple of days for the New Year's Eve celebration. But then I moved on. Florida beckoned :)
Jackson Square, NOLA
Street performers all over NOLA
The drive from New Orleans to Pensacola, FL crossed two states, Mississippi and Alabama. I drove along the southern coast of the two states and encountered some of the cleanest beaches - a friend tells me it is partly due to the Hurricane Katrina. One such beach was in a town in Mississippi called Pass Christian where I stopped for the sunset. And it was one of the prettiest I've ever witnessed. And the scene only got prettier after the sun set. The sparse clouds on the evening sky looked like a crumpled bright crimson cloth hung over a blue wall. I was visually satisfied, and proceeded to the hotel I had booked at Pensacola (remember, I did not have any couch to surf in Florida yet).

The beach at Pass Christian
Pensacola beach was the first beach in Florida I went to. It was unfortunately cloudy that day, but it was my first time on a white sand beach. It was strangely peaceful. The drive along the coast was lined up with hotels all along the way in the form of tall buildings, each trying to sell the "room with a ocean view" experience. I could only hope that the days would get brighter as I proceeded to south Florida. I wanted to go to Clearwater beach next, as it was consistently voted as one of the top beaches in the US. It was still quite far from Pensacola, so I decided to stop at Tampa for the night. My emergency couch request was accepted by a guy called Peter who worked as a scientist in a nearby university. Peter told me that the beaches on the western coast of Florida will have white sands owing to the limestone, whereas the ones on the eastern coast will not.
Pensacola Beach
The next day started off bright and sunny fortunately, and I ventured off to explore beaches on the eastern coast - Clearwater and Siesta Key. Both of them have some of the finest and whitest sands of any beach I have been to. Super clean and beautiful, these beaches are extremely family friendly as the crowd was decorous and optimal, although that could have been due to the winter season. I spent most of my day on these beaches until it was dark. It was New Year's Eve, and I started off for Miami. I was on the west coast in San Francisco for the 2013 New Years eve, and this time I watched the fireworks on the east coast from Bayfront Park in Miami (is that poetic, or lame?).

Clearwater Beach

Siesta Key Beach
The only decent shot I took at the fireworks
The next day, I proceeded to the accommodation that I had booked through Airbnb in Miami. After settling down for a bit, I proceeded to the South Beach in Miami, on the western coast of Florida. The sand was brown and coarse, and there were commercial establishments all over. But the beach more than made up for what it lacked in serenity with character and people. Let me just say I was a very happy man for the seemingly short time I spent there :). My Airbnb host, Arthur, knew his way around town very well. He showed me around Miami for a little bit, and we visited a small island south of Miami called Key Biscayne. Remarkably lesser crowd for a beach that was so nice! He couldn't join me on my trip to Key West, though. Key West is the last in a long string of islands called the Florida Keys. The drive from Miami to Key West goes across these islands on many bridges, one of them being the seven-mile bridge. The drive was quite enchanting for a bit when you are driving on a bridge in the middle of the ocean, but then it gets a little boring. The sunset at Key West though was worth the drive. And the road trip had come to an end. The next morning, when I drove my rental car to the airport, it started playing Good Riddance. with Green Day singing, "I hope you had the time of your life". I sure did.
Miami Downtown

Key Biscayne
Key West
The final sunset at Key West
P.S: The authorities in Texas thought it was also important to remind those who fly over the state where they are. I could see the Lonestar painted on top of buildings too on my way back. Sigh!

3 comments:

  1. Hey Naren,

    I live in Phoenix and I remember Suravi reaching out on FB looking for hosts for you. We had to go to India during that time frame so we weren't available. Nice to know that you had a good road trip. When I started reading this post and saw your itinerary, I thought to myself, "What could be interesting about this road trip with the exception of New Orleans, Florida and Key West!" Living in Arizona, I have an idea how a person driving through the state would feel :) But, I think all the people you met and couch-surfed with made the trip far more interesting than it otherwise would have been. At the same time, I want to mention that Arizona has few gems that you shouldn't miss and it deserves another road trip on its own (I am not talking about Grand Canyon here :). Check out my blog for those destinations http://www.beaches-cities-wildlife.com/. Should you plan a trip to Arizona next time, I hope we can host you :)

    Cheers,
    Rekha

    ReplyDelete
  2. Hi Rekha,
    Just read some posts on your blog. Looks like I should visit AZ again! :)
    I've been eyeing Antelope Canyon and Havasu falls for sometime now, so maybe I'll make some plans pretty soon.

    ReplyDelete
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