Archive

Tag Archives: driving

toroweap 6I’ve been to the Grand Canyon enough times that I couldn’t accurately count.

But sometimes familiarity makes us lose the magic. If I’ve been to Mather Point once, I’ve been a dozen times, at all hours of the day. And while it is still beautiful, still breathtaking, there is something missing — that virgin sense of seeing it for the first time.arizona highways magazine cover

This is replaced by the proxy pleasure of watching someone else see it for the first time, but now I’ve had even that vicarious fun often enough that I know what to expect.

But there are other places to see the canyon besides the official viewpoints of the National Park Service.

One of my first images of the Grand Canyon came when I was a child in the Christmas edition of Arizona Highways magazine, which was once a year available on the magazine racks in New Jersey. One of the pictures in it was a stunning photograph of the Canyon from Toroweap Overlook. I never forgot that name, it seemed so odd — although I don’t know why an Indian name should seem exotic to a Jersey boy living between Hackensack and Ho-Ho-Kus.toroweap 15

Nevertheless, I always wanted to go to Toroweap, to see that vertical panorama, the 3,000-foot drop to the river.

The overlook is reached by 61 miles of dirt road. And those miles start from a point 9 miles west of Fredonia, Arizona, which is already as remote as it is possible to be in the state. On the Arizona Strip between the Canyon and Utah, Fredonia is a little town you pass through on the way to Kanab, which is no Chicago either.

Fredonia is 120 miles from the nearest Arizona town of any significance, Flagstaff, through the Navajo Indian Reservation and across the northern margin of the state skirting the Vermilion Cliffs. It is so remote that when you pass the turn off for the Grand Canyon North Rim, you still have to press on into the wilderness to get to Fredonia.toroweap 9

How remote is it? Well, it is technically considered frontier. Any place with fewer than two people per square mile is officially called frontier, said the ranger at Pipe Spring National Monument, which is also in this neck of the woods.

The Arizona Strip easily qualifies. Arizona, for instance, has a population density of about 50 people per square mile. When you subtract the population center of Fredonia, with its 2100 people, the rest of the Strip checks in with .014 people per square mile. That’s fewer than 3 people per 20 square miles.

That is the official definition of empty.toroweap 7

toroweap 17Well, a little past the sign that reads “Six Mile Village, 3 miles” you find a dirt-road turn off with a sign to Toroweap Overlook. It says, “Toroweap Overlook, 61 miles.”

At first, you feel rather confident. Anyone who regularly drives the dirt and gravel back roads in this state will be lulled into a false sense of security.

The first 20 miles or so are pretty flat, pretty well kept up and surprisingly civilized. You can do a comfortable 50 miles an hour if you don’t mind kicking up a few stones and hearing them clatter against your undercarriage.toroweap 10

But then, after crossing the Antelope Valley, you have to climb the first small plateau and the road begins to wind and narrow. Patches of sand appear in the hollows of the land and you have to slow down or risk losing control of your car.

Yes, I said car. Every guide book I checked out said the trip can be made in a passenger car. And since I am an intrepid risker of my car, I thought that this sounds like a piece of cake. I have driven my car through mountainside cow pastures, through North Carolina woods with no roads, twisting between the trees like a Daniel Boone in a Chevy. I have taken my car on the 30 miles of washboard someone jokingly called a road on the far side of Death Valley from the highway.

I can go anywhere.toroweap 8

But the road to Toroweap became hinkier. About 45 miles in, just after the turn-off for the road to Mt. Trumbull, the road gets questionable. And I mean, like I question that it deserves the name road at all.

Since I was two-thirds of the way to my longed for magic dream, I pushed on.

After all, I am the man who drove my car across Thompson Wash to the north of Canyonlands National Park in Utah. I am the man who keeps an entrenching tool and a Hudson Bay ax in the trunk at all times in case I need to dig out of the sand and chop down brush to thrust under the tires for some purchase.toroweap 13

There were some sand pans along the way, where your tires no longer go where you point them and your careen through the powder like a raft going downstream. The steering wheel becomes a tiller and you just try to keep pointed forward. But if you get up a head of steam going into the sand, you can more or less bull your way through.toroweap 14

But after the Tuweep Ranger Station, where you enter the national park lands, it started getting tricky. I had had some touchy moments in the sand, but nothing I didn’t think I could handle in my Pontiac Grand Am. But in the final eight miles from there to the overlook, the road gets positively grim. The sand — I call it sand, but it is really a fine, pulverized powder that sits axle-deep in the roadway — had previously been in recognizable pans, small patches of up to 100 feet in extent. But along the Toroweap Valley, there is a stretch of about a quarter mile of unrelieved sand.toroweap 4

As I was driving along — careening, really — I came upon the ranger in a road grader smoothing the roadbed. He should have saved his effort. The grader was smoothing off the top of the sand, but that didn’t make it any easier to plow through. In fact, the ruts provided better traction for the tires, as long as the high sand in between didn’t contain any large rocks waiting to score the bottom metal of the car.

With the sand passed, the road got narrower and rockier. The rocks were bumpy and you had to take them slowly, especially around the tight curves up and down the canyon, but they were negotiable. The final three miles slowed me down to a pace of between 5 and 10 mph, but I didn’t mind so much, since at least I knew the road wouldn’t swallow my tires.

At the end, Toroweap Overlook was a small rocky parking lot with a port-o-let to one side and a giant hole in the ground to the other.toroweap 2

They view was spectacular and the rawness of the experience made the South Rim look positively urban. There are no guard rails, no interpretive signs, no ranger walks, just an edge of rock with a vertical drop down to the river of three-fifths of a mile. The canyon at Toroweap is very narrow — it is about a mile to the southern rim across the gorge, and directly below, you can hear the roar of the rapids.toroweap 11

Two German couples were there looking down the hole and taking pictures of each other on the ledge. One of the men, seeing my once-bright red sedan now a uniform dun of dust — and comparing it with their two high-water SUVs, came over to me and asked me which route I had taken. When I told him, the looked at me like I was crazy, laughed and said, “In that car? How did you do it?”toroweap 3

And, you know, I’m not completely sure myself. But I knew that ahead of my was another 61 miles of the same thing just to get out again.toroweap 1

So, this is a warning to you. Don’t believe everything you read in a guidebook.

Yes, it is possible to get to Toroweap in your car, if you have the gumption.

But don’t expect any yellow brick road.toroweap 16

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

State Line tex-NMTo see the world, you fly around it; to learn about your neighborhood, you walk through it; but to appreciate something about the country you live in, there is nothing better than an automobile.Clouds from plane

A jet flies too high and fast to take in any detail. The country is too big to slog through on foot. A car is the perfect compromise, letting you pass over a significant portion of the nation each day, but allowing you the leisure to stop and sniff the magnolias in Mississippi, the rank ecstatic yellow sunflowers in North Dakota — and the lingering odor of peanut butter at Graceland.

It’s summer again, and once more, I open up another brand-new Rand McNally road atlas and begin planning a drive around the North American continent.Sunflowers North Dakota

In the past 15 years, I’ve made the round-trip across the United States at least a dozen times. I feel like Magellan when I start once more on the circumvehiculation of America.

I’ve done it alone and with my wife. I’ve done it camping and in motels. I’ve done it in summer and in winter. I’ve done it in as long as two months and as short as two weeks. Last year, I made it from Phoenix to North Carolina over a weekend, but I’m not likely to repeat that butt-numbing feat.

Yet I am planning another road trip this spring.

Friends tell me I am nuts, a masochist torturing myself or a sadist torturing my wife, but I keep setting out.

There is always something new to see, or some old friend to revisit: I’ve been to North Carolina’s Outer Banks something like 40 times, and I’m beginning to develop the same relationship with Maine’s Down East. When I have lived in the East, I couldn’t wait to visit New Mexico again.Baldwin Co. Ala. sunset

There are soft-shelled crabs to be eaten in Virginia, salmon in Seattle. There are pirogis in Wisconsin and scrapple in Philadelphia. You can only get pizza in New Jersey, you can only get barbecue in eastern North Carolina, or a real Cuban sandwich in Miami.

Barns in Pennsylvania have stone foundations; in Georgia, they rest lumber right on the ground. In Wisconsin, the barns are red; in North Carolina, it’s the dirt that’s red; the gray, weathered barns aren’t painted at all.

I remember passing through Iowa and being astonished to see a farmfield filled with hogs and each animal had its private home, looking like a Levittown of doghouses.

In southern Arizona, I passed something very similar, but it was for fighting roosters.Bear Mtn Bridge

American regionalism is alive, despite network television and corporate advertising. America hasn’t yet been completely turned into one great food court of McDonald’s and Arby’s.

If you think you have only a choice between Pepsi and Coke, wait till you pop the top of a Double Cola in Reidsville, N.C.

Try one at the Sanitary Cafe, where calf’s brains are the breakfast special.Cadillac Ranch Amarillo Texas

I’ve been to most of those landmark places you’ve heard of: International Falls, Minn.; Walla-Walla, Wash.; Langtry, Texas; Cairo, Ill.; Appomattox, Va.; Intercourse, Pa.; West Point, N.Y.

There are some great old iron bridges across the Susquehanna River in Pennsylvania, some great concrete bridges in central New Jersey that speak of the the great age of American highway building in the 1930s.

I’ve been up Pikes Peak in Colorado and up Mt. Washington in New Hampshire.

I’ve been over Lake Ponchartrain in Louisiana and across the floating bridge over the Hood Canal in Puget Sound north of Seattle.Columbia River Gorge Oregon-Washington

It helps if you love to drive, and I know not everyone has that passion. My brother hates driving, for instance. He views an automobile vacation like a two weeks stuck in an elevator. He can’t wait for his floor to arrive so he can get the heck out.

But most elevators don’t have windows.

As I watch the landscape pass across my windshield, like a travelog on a movie screen, I get a sense of the whole elephant, not just his trunk or tail.

Of course, we are talking here about a two-lane blacktop trip, not a bland rush down an interstate highway, where one stretch of concrete pavement can be distinguished from another only by the names on the exit signs.factory, trees, Lowell, Mass

It is a particular kind of travel and has nothing in common with the destination-vacation of the tourism industry. I have no interest in waiting on Disney World lines for thrill rides or Lake Winnibigoshish for a week of trout fishing. You can have your three days lounging on the sands of Bimini or your Love Boat cruise.

Instead, I get to travel an arc of the planet, get to feel in my bones the curvature of the earth and the roughness of its skin. It is through driving across its surface that I get some body-feel for the size of the globe: It is roughly 10 times the distance I drive to get from Phoenix to New York City. New OrleansThat’s not some numbers on some mileage chart, but a distance I know by the seat of my pants.

It’s also a lot smaller than the world seemed before I began driving.

In those years, my wife and I have been to each of the 48 contiguous state at least twice and most more frequently; we have been to all but one of the Canadian provinces; and even skirted into Mexico a little bit.

And each of those trips could have produced a Blue Highways, a book-length summation of what we saw and learned.Frosty dawn Wisconsin

Part 2

Over the past decade and a half, I’ve put enough vacation miles on the cars I’ve owned to equal driving around the world 2 1/2 times. You don’t drive that much without learning a few things.

The first is, of course, to stay off the interstates. You may get there faster, but not by much, and you’ll be bored the whole drowsy way. And in much of the country — and especially in the West — speed limits on smaller highways is not much lower than on the four-lanes, and with less traffic.Golden Gate Bridge SF Calif

Have a rough itinerary and plan how many miles per day you are willing to drive. This is more important for a passenger: Driving will keep you occupied, but your partner may go stir crazy sitting in a seat while going across some of the flatter places in Texas; Don’t overdo it. Marriages hang in the balance.

But never make your itinerary too rigid. You will discover unexpected things along the way; let yourself enjoy them.Gorilla, Am Mus Nat Hist04 copy

We never reserve motel rooms, so we never feel forced to get somewhere by nightfall. There are enough motels along the way. Even national parks, with their crowds, often have last minute cancellations. We’ve pulled into the Grand Canyon and into Yellowstone and gotten a room. But have a contingency plan.

One year, we hit South Dakota the week of the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally and there were no vacancies for 200 miles around. We had to drive into the next state to find a room. But that brings up the next lesson:

Don’t be afraid of mishaps and adventures. They may be uncomfortable during the trip, but they will be the best stories you tell your friends. No matter how bad it gets, it will provide the most vivid memory.Imperial Dunes California

Don’t drive every day; take some time to spend in a single spot. Three days we spent in a cabin on Daicey Pond in Maine’s Baxter State Park were three of the best days we ever spent — hiking, canoeing, watching moose and listening to loons at the base of Mount Katahdin. Not once did we start the car. When we finally left, we were ready for more miles.

There are things you should always have in your car: water, a blanket, Fig Newtons, a road atlas, your address book with phone numbers. Forest Lawn cemetery LAI also carry an entrenching tool — one of those small folding shovels you can buy at army surplus stores — for digging out when I get the car stuck in sand or mud.

Don’t be afraid of dirt roads. There are some amazing rewards at the end of a bit of gravel.

We also always carry a small library of Peterson nature guides, two pairs of binoculars, camera equipment and twice the amount of film I think I can possibly shoot.

And finally, my nomination for the greatest invention of the 20th century: cruise control. It keeps your right foot from cramping up on the gas pedal. I was 45 before I ever tried it and I’ll never be that stupid again.pacific coast highway California

Part 3

What makes for good driving?

I don’t know about others, but for me, optimum driving conditions include:

–Little or no traffic for infinite miles ahead, with no stoplights.

–Interesting and varied weather; I don’t want incessant sunshine any more than I want endless rain. A front moving through gives me a constantly changing cloud show.Greylock Mt from Melville home Mass

–An old road with a history. Route 66 is the most famous, but not the only one. I especially enjoy roads that follow geology: along a mountain range or river, so that the road seems to belong to the earth, rather than denying it.

–Occasional side roads, preferably gravel, for a change of pace.

–Periodic change of landscape, such as when you drive from the Plains to the Rocky Mountains, or from the white sands of the Atlantic Coastal Plain into the hilly interior of the Piedmont.

— A regional food specialty you haven’t tried yet and no chain restaurants.leo carillo st beach california

— A few museums and a few national parks. I gotta have both.

— A used book store in every town.

— A pile of Haydn symphonies on CD to run through the dashboard player.

–A clean windshield. This last must be renewed frequently. Bugs bust on the glass.Mississippi barge

Part 4

The dozen most scenic drives in the 48 states:

1. Beartooth Highway, U.S. 212 from Red Lodge, Mont., to Yellowstone National Park.

2. The Pacific Coast Highway, Calif. 1, from San Luis Obispo to Leggett, Calif..

3. Blue Ridge Parkway, from Waynesboro, Va. to Smoky Mountains National Park, N.C.

4. N.C. 12 from Nags Head to Okracoke, N.C.

5. Ariz. 264 from Ganado to Tuba City, Ariz.

6. U.S. 1 from Miami to Key West, Fla.

7. La. 82 from Perry, La., to Port Arthur, Texas.

8. U.S. 1 from Ellsworth to Calais, Maine.

9. Kancamagus Highway, N.H. 112, from Conway to Lincoln, N.H.

10. Tex. 170 from Presidio, Texas, to Big Bend National Park.

11. Utah 12 from Red Canyon to Torrey, Utah.

12. Wash. 14 though the Columbia River Gorge from Camas to Plymouth, Wash.Niagara Falls

Part 5

It isn’t just the flashy, famous places that draw the true driver. In fact, commercial destinations, such as Disney World or Las Vegas, are probably best gotten to by airplane and shuttle bus, so you can give over all your time to waiting in lines.

No, in a car, some of the best experiences come by rolling through the kind of places that fall through the cracks of marketing. Places “below the radar,” so to speak, of commercial development.mobile bay point clear

The small towns, endless farms, mountain ranges, Indian reservations — these are the places you have the opportunity to discover things for yourself. In the big theme parks, you get a uniform experience, developed through marketing research. The ride you take is the same ride millions of others take.

But when you talk to the harried but chummy waitress in Doumar’s, an original ’50s style drive-in on Monticello Ave. in Norfolk, Va., you are talking to a real person, a one-on-one experience that is particular and individual. You get a flavor of place, of culture, of people, of individuals.Page Dam Arizona

To say nothing of the flavor of ice cream, in a cone as close to identical as possible to the original waffled cone Abe Doumar is credited with inventing in 1904. They still make them on the same old wheezy portable machine. If your lucky, they’ll be making them while you eat.

Likewise, there is nothing predictable about the starfish you find in an Oregon tidepool, or the bears in the Smoky Mountains. You get to experience the infinite variety of real life.Sierra Nevada Mts California

Of course, I have my favorites.

Among the 48 states, I can never find the end of either California or North Carolina. They are both richly varied.

California seems to have everything from the world-navel of pop culture to the most remote wilderness. It has more than any other single state.Thunder hole Acadia NP Maine

But North Carolina is nearly as varied geographically, and it has B&G fried pies, the most soul-satisfying food in the world. North Carolina also has the Blue Ridge Mountains and the Outer Banks.

And I cannot get enough of the great, grassy, rolling middle of America. When I tell people I love driving through Nebraska, they look at me like I just said I was born on the Hale-Bopp Comet. But just pull into one of those one-street towns with the grain elevator towering over the single railroad track and have lunch in the cafe where the farmers eat.Yellowstone Nat Park Wyoming

Or imagine the wagonloads of immigrants trudging along the Platte River, with Scotts Bluff on the horizon.

The pace is slower, more humane in Nebraska.

Humankind developed on the grasslands of Africa, and Nebraska, especially, seems to call atavistically to me, reawakening my genetic love of savannas.Monument Valley Arizona

It’s easy to love the broad vistas of the West. Southern Utah doesn’t seem to have a square inch that isn’t photogenic, and the Grand Tetons of Wyoming are mountains right out of central casting: They are to other mountains what Cary Grant is to most men.

But I also love the Mid-Atlantic states. Sometimes, a Western forest is too much of the same thing. You can walk for miles in the Cascades of Washington and see only two kinds of trees: Douglas fir and Western redcedar.Zabriskie Point Death Valley Calif

It’s different in Pennsylvania or Tennessee. In the great Appalachian mountain chain of the East, there are more species of plant life than in all of Europe. The variety is blinding: Redbud in spring, Tulip tree in summer. White pine, pin oak, red maple, sweetgum, sycamore, witch hazel, horse chestnut — and hundreds more.

And there is something humanizing about the landscape. This is land which has been lived in for hundreds of years. It is still wild, but it has made peace with the humans who live there and send smoke up their stony winter chimneys.Zion National Park Utah

In the past, I avoided cities the way I avoid Justin Bieber songs. The noise, nuisance, dirt and traffic were everything I was trying to avoid by getting on the road.

But I have come to terms with them, also. After all, it is in Chicago, Philadelphia, New York and Boston that you find the symphony orchestras, natural history museums, ethnic foods and imposing architecture.Mississippi River Hannibal Missouri

The greatest city for driving is Los Angeles. It may be the home of the cultural antichrist, but it is also a great fermenting, creative pot, with lots of roads that take you past inventively loopy buildings: The Tail ’o the Pup hot dog stand, the downtown Coca-Cola bottling plant in the form of an ocean liner.

In LA, you can’t get anywhere without wheels. It is the perfect American city.mobile bay

There are two states that I have to admit I don’t particularly enjoy: New Jersey, probably because I grew up there and don’t feel much urge to go back; and Florida, which is supposed to be a Southern state, but it has been given over to graceless Yankees. But even in Florida, I have to admit I love the Cubano culture of Miami and the Everglades, proving that there is always something of worth.

west texas road
Two things about Texas: It’s big and it’s empty.

For most of us, crossing Texas along the interstate, it is two days of tedium, flatness and gravel, waiting to get from the desert West to the humid East.

But there is another way to eliminate the tedium of the unavoidable crossing of the world’s largest vacant lot: Slow down, take your time and enjoy it.

That is what I decided to do when faced with yet another transcontinental automobile trip. I stayed off the interstate and took the back roads from El Paso to Beaumont, passing great views, interesting topography, peculiar history and even more peculiar people.

Mile 0 is the boundary between New Mexico and Texas, entering the state at Anthony. I drove through in the early morning, with the sun just sitting on the horizon, the Franklin Mountains to the east looking the color and texture of gray suede. The dew had raised the smell of the creosote bush.trans mountain expressway franklin mts

The first real chance to get off I-10 comes with the Trans-Mountain Expressway, that lifts you up and over the mountains and into Fort Bliss, just north of El Paso. As you descend, you pass the U.S. Border Patrol Museum and the streets of the military Bomarc missilereservation named for out of date missiles: Minuteman and Bomarc.

The next goal is the Hueco Mountains along U.S. 62. As you get to the top, at mile 56, you can spot the Guadalupe Mountains, highest point in the state, some 75 miles in the future.

The road passes along the dry regions of western Texas, with few people and even fewer gas stations. The first is at Cornudas, a one-time Butterfield State stop, now a dilapidated gas station and cafe, with souvenirs.cornudas texas

The sign outside reads, “Welcome to beautiful downtown Cornudas, pop. 5 or 6.”

Inside, the cafe is covered from head to foot in collectibles: old hubcaps, old postcards, things written on old napkins, old license plates, old photos and newspaper clippings. The ceiling is hung with things, including souvenir ballcaps, each individually wrapped in clear plastic.

The tables, too, are loaded down with writings, some printed, some hand-written, then covered with plastic. The table legs are wrapped in blue-jeans legs and bottomed with cowboy boots.

And on every table, along with menu and salt and pepper shakers, are copies of Lyndon LaRoushe’s wack-o New Federalist newsletters. This is a cafe with a political point of view.

And one table, near the cash register, sit two or three aging, potbellied “cowboys,” dressed in overalls and scratchy with whiskers. They look up at me as I enter, as if I were a spy come to undo their righteous cabal.

Nevertheless, I have a wonderful breakfast, which I recommend to all, a good Spanish omelet, toast and sliced fried potatoes.

When I finish, I ask if I can get gas.

“Sorry, we’re all out,” the waitress tells me. “But you can get some up about 15 miles at Route 1111.”

Paying the bill, I say to the nice woman behind the counter, “You sure are a far piece from civilization,” and she said with a smile that was only slightly ominous, “That just the way we want to keep it.”salt flat texas

Unfortunately, the gas station at the crossroads is closed. But another 15 miles down the way, at Salt Flat, there is another. Actually, it is a pile of corrugated tin and stucco buildings surrounded with cyclone fence. I pull in, amble up to the office and find it is locked, despite the “Open” sign in the window.

A dog barks, then another, then a few more. Behind the fence they are howling. A house sits across the dirt lot from the pump. Its door is closed. No one stirs. The sun is beating down. I honk my horn. I ring the doorbell. Nothing. Silence, except for the dry, angry barking of junkyard dogs.

West Texas is a very empty place. The air is desiccated, the ground is sandy, the mountains are heated stones, even in October.

It is not surprising that this group of shanties in Salt Flat seems like a set for one of those cheap made-for-TV stalker films. The area was also the site of the 1877 El Paso Salt Wars, when private industry bought the land and began charging for the salt that had previously been collected free by Indians and Mexicans. Many lives were lost.road to guadalupe mts

The road curls just south of El Capitan, the prominent peak at the head of the Guadalupe Mountains and one of Texas’ national parks.

To the east at mile 105, the Delaware Mountains are lined with some 65 electricity-generating windmills.

el capitan guadalupe mountains

But it is the Guadalupes that dominate. In their wrinkled canyons are trees and streams. There is birdlife and butterflies. At the visitor center little yellow butterflies wink in the butterfly weed.

“We had fall color here last week,” the ranger tells me. “But we had a 90-mile-an-hour wind come through and we don’t have any fall color anymore.”

They also don’t have any gas. The nearest is in the next state, 35 miles to the north at White City, N.M., near Carlsbad Caverns.

But I take the turn southeast to Orla. At mile 145, I enter the Central Time Zone, but time is certainly meaningless here among the cows and chaparral.Orla Texas

At the Orla Grocery, mile 185, the sign says, “It’s a long way to anywhere from Orla Grocery.”

The town is made up of a few sagging shacks, some tilted all the way over. There is also a yard filled with oil-drilling machinery, marking a change in geography. From here to the Hill Country, there is oil.

Reeves County, which includes both Orla and Pecos, is a flat, arid grassy land. In Pecos, the historical marker tells about the Pecos cantaloupe:

“Nationally famed melon, originated in this city. Residents from 1880s grew melons in gardens, noting sun and soil imparted a distinctive flavor.”

It goes on to say, “Famed lecturer Helen Keller, Presidents Eisenhower and Johnson, and many other distinguished persons have ordered and appreciated Pecos cantaloupes.”iraan roadcut

But it is oil that is most apparent, especially as you enter the rocky hill country near Iraan.

The town is named for Ira G. Yates and his wife, Ann. It was under his ranch that the Marathon Oil Company — then Ohio Oil — discovered the biggest oil field in Texas and one of the biggest in the world.iraan 1Previously, oil experts had agreed, “You won’t find oil west of the Pecos River.” But they did. Within a year of the first well, struck in 1926, the Yates field had 100 wells dug. It now has more than 600.Alley Oop

Iraan is also the birthplace of the comic strip, “Alley Oop.” It was created by V.T. Hamlin while he lived here. Giant statues at the town playground immortalize Oop, his girl friend Ooola and his dinosaur, a 65-foot-long Dinny.

In the middle of town, the school sports a sign that says, “Iraan Braves, 1996 Double-A State Football Champs. 16-0.”

It is a long draw — some 90 miles — to the next town, Eldorado. The road, U.S. 190, passes some of the most beautiful scenery in Texas, with mesas and buttes, trees and scrub.

But at the halfway point through the state, at Brady and mile 507, is the geographical center of Texas. Or so the town claims.Brady texas sign

As the crow flies, it is 437 miles to the state’s westernmost point, 341miles from the most easterly point, 401 miles from the most southerly point and 412 miles from the most northerly.

“Enclosed within the 4,137-mile perimeter of the state are 267,339 square miles or 7.4 percent of the nation’s total area,” says the historical marker. “Fifteen of the 50 states could be readily accommodated within Texas’ borders — with more than 1,000 square miles left over.”Brady texas

It isn’t only the land that changes as I head into the eastern half of the state. The humidity rises, so that when I wake up the next morning after a night in the motel at Brady, the streets are so wet with dew, it looks as if it had rained in the night.

The heavy dew also brings out the smell of the grass and the dirt.

South of Brady, U.S. 87 enters the Texas Hill Country, an bubble of limestone that rises in the center of the state and continues north from the Balcones Escarpment. It is an oasis in the monotony of Texas landscape, with streams, forests, lakes and the former home of former President Lyndon Johnson.lbj state park entry sign

It comes as a shock to me how incredibly beautiful the LBJ Ranch actually is. And it is also a shock to hear Johnson, in old TV footage shown at the visitor center, talk about his love of the land.

I grew up at a time when Johnson was demonized for his policy on the Vietnam War. I never thought of him as anything but a power-mad monomaniac. But the LBJ Ranch, mile 592, humanizes him considerably.lbj ranch house 2

On the TV footage, he talks about watching deer jump the fence on the farm, about watching a yearling fawn, about raising the cattle and sheep. He speaks with genuine affection and without any of the boilerplate rhetoric that was his signature.

And I realized how Southern he must have been, how much the land meant to him, despite anything he did in the “halls of power.”lbj ranch pedernales river

I walk around the property on the edges of the Pedernales River, along Williams Creek that empties into the river.

There is the tannic smell of autumn leaves on the ground; there is hackberry and post oak and Virginia creeper along the fenceposts.

The creek is filled with bluegill sunfish, Texas softshell turtle, minnows, yellow mudturtles, bullfrogs, Rocky Mountain toads, crayfish, Rio Grande leopard frogs and the blotched water snake.

It is nature full of its variety. The river itself has kingfishers, mallards, Texas sliders, coots, largemouth bass, red sunfish and catfish.Pedernales River

As I stand on the bank of the river, under a pecan tree, hundreds of years old, a black anhinga flies up over the small dam that creates a cascade in the river, and four white geese try to cross the dam from the opposite shore. No, it’s five.

A nature trail winds around a fenced in deer enclosure and one of them comes up to nibble some grass I hold out for it.lbj ranch farmstead1

The trail continues into a small demonstration farm, typical of those in the area when Johnson was young. Five sheep and two little lambs are resting and sleeping. One of the lambs is curled up in a ball next to the woodpile. lbj ranch farmstead2Uncounted chickens run around the yard under the shade of post oaks and sumac and one big old live oak.

A few feet on, I spot a newborn lamb, just a few months old, his ears sticking straight out, catching the sun from behind. He is looking right at me.

Over my head, I can’t quite see him in the sunlight, but I hear him tapping: It is a flicker.

And over the very top, there is a hawk flying, soaring over the top of the farm. The little lamb shakes his head and flaps his ears.

The ranch is a paradise, an Eden, and I want to stay here.

From the ranch to the Louisiana boundary, Texas becomes increasingly Southern rather than Western. The landscape becomes more forested, the towns closer together and the traffic thicker. And the humidity becomes intense.dripping springs texas

I pass Dripping Springs at mile 629, Ledbetter at mile 728. At mile 766, I cross the Brazos River. It is still full from last summer’s heavy rains.

At mile 803, I see my first mention of the word “Cajun,” and I know I am near the end of the state.dixie's cajun seafood

At mile 823, I enter Cut and Shoot, a town more memorable in name than substance. It is just another junked up Southern town, filled with pickup trucks and Carol Sue’s Country Kitchen: “Dine in, Carry out, We deliver, Barbecue and fixin’s.”

After the dryness of western Texas, it is frightening to see the Trinity River in flood, swollen way over the woods on each side of its banks. The adjoining farm fields are lakes, with a few old cornstalks sticking up through the surface. The river water is still moving with a swiftness that looks as if it could wash away a town.20120106-OC-AMW-0698

And north of Sour Lake, the many sections of Big Thicket National Preserve looks as if it might as well be Louisiana, with its cypress sloughs and dense forests of beech, magnolia and loblolly pine.sabine river 2

I join I-10 once again in Beaumont, mile 905, and it will be interstate from here on. And I cross the Sabine River into Louisiana at mile 933. The interstate mile marker reads 881, which means I have only added 52 miles by taking the back roads.

But I have seen, heard, smelled and tasted so much more.

Driving 1It was the weekend I drove across America: I left Phoenix after work on Friday and pulled into North Carolina before breakfast on Monday. I was hauling macadam.

But to paraphrase Mr. Bernstein from Citizen Kane, “There’s no secret to piling up miles, if all you want to do is pile up miles.”

At any rate, I logged 1,886 miles between work on Friday and sleep on Sunday.

People sometimes ask me if driving doesn’t wear me down, but it doesn’t. There is nothing I find as relaxing as spending a week on the highway, watching the scenery scroll by and the sun roll around heaven all day.

I get up at 5 each morning and count a hundred miles on the odometer before stopping for breakfast. You notice the difference from one edge of a time zone to another: On the same day, 5 a.m. can be black night in Williston, N.D., and broad daylight in Pensacola, Fla., both in the Central Time Zone.driving 2 - night

It gives you a cosmic feel: You know you are moving across the arc of the planet’s edge. In Saskatchewan you can watch the grain elevator behind you sink below the horizon in your rear view mirror, like the sails of a ship dropping under the curve of the earth, just as the next elevator breaks the surface in front of you. You are always on the top of a mound that falls off to every side.

The point of this particular dash across the continent was to collect my wife, who had been visiting her mother in North Carolina, and continue on our vacation, making a great loop across the Northeast and back through central Canada.

I left the office at about 4 p.m. on Friday and drove the 289 miles to Gallup, N.M., where I stayed in a chain motel and ate supper at a tiny, empty  dive, where a Navajo woman made a great turkey sandwich.

Saturday took me from Gallup to Oklahoma City, some 725 miles. I could have gone further, but I did some sightseeing in Endee, N.M., and in Amarillo, Texas.

Sunday, I stopped for a couple of hours in Arkansas, but still managed to make 872 miles, stopping in Kingston, Tenn., just short of Knoxville.

I usually avoid the interstates, but to waste as little time as possible before joining my wife, I took I-40 most of the way, playing dodge-cars with semis, terrorizing slow-moving RVs and watching my odometer spin like a slot machine.interstate mt airy

The next day, I drove across the Smokies, up along the Blue Ridge and down into the Piedmont, managing to cruise through Andy Griffith’s Mount Airy.

There are some disadvantages to this kind of travel. Meals, for instance, are either awful or non-existent. Mostly, I keep a box of Fig Newtons in the back seat and gnosh occasionally. The entree is beef jerky bought at a truck stop; I’ve become quite a connoisseur of jerky. A liter of bottled water sits on the back floor.

When I do stop and eat dinner, it is uniformly greasy, oversalted and overcooked. And don’t even mention the salad bar.

Then, it’s into the motel room for a night’s sleep before getting up again at 5, to see the dull light in the east spread out along the fuzzy line that separates the sky and its brightening clouds from the ground below and the road that stretches toward the rising sun.

texashillcountry1

I’ve gotten an early start on a long day’s driving. It is dawn on the plains of west Texas and as the sun pops its first bright blast over the horizon, Schubert’s Trout Quintet plays on the car stereo.

Its first chord is also a bright blast, beginning like a sunrise, with a skyrocket of an arpeggio on the keyboard that bounds out like that first instant blaze as the edge of the sun explodes on the horizon.trout score 2

And when the quintet’s first melody breaks free, the arpeggio is joined by the string bass descending to rock bottom. It’s like the unfolding of a musical universe. It’s almost like getting out of bed, stretching your arms up over your head and planting your feet firmly on the floor.trout score1

I often find myself whistling along with the music when I’m driving, but with the Trout, I find myself singing along, bellowing like a playful calf.

It’s a different thing altogether. The whistling is just a kind of inattentive tagging along with the tune.

The singing, however, is my physical presence in the music.

Bump-bump-bump-bummmmm, I yell out with the string bass.

It is that deep resonance that gives an anchor to the music. It is like the footings of a skyscraper dug 60 feet into the bedrock.

The Texas hill country glows in the first rays of the sun, each rolling rise of earth catching the light like the drapery on a Greek statue.

There are a few low sunrise clouds, but the sun enters underneath them and the road is so empty, they just undulate as they run up over the hills. There is nothing on the highway for miles, just the occasional transfer truck that you pass.

What gives the Trout its phenomenal sense of emotional rightness is its constant balancing of the upward and downward motion of its melodies, often at the same time, like the bass and piano at the outset.

It’s not often in life that the emotions coincide in such a perfect sense of morning, light, a new day, optimism and hope.

Such is the Texas daybreak; such is the Schubert. It is a sunny quintet, with hardly the whisper of a shadow in its five bright movements. Even the minor-key variation in the fourth movement is dispelled with a major chord — “I was just playing,” its composer seems to be saying.

Yet, the Trout is an anomaly among Schubert’s major compositions. He wrote it when he was only 22 and it spreads sunshine from beginning to end.

Through most of his best music — the late piano sonatas, late quartets and the great C-major string quintet — there is a strain of despair that is heartbreaking. Even in his short piano pieces, beloved of amateurs for a century and a half, there runs a vein of deep melancholy that shades even his happiest moments.

For soon after he wrote the Trout, Schubert knew he was going to die, and to die soon. He had contracted an incurable syphilis, and it left him an outcast. He was dead before he was 32.

That knowledge, along with his poverty and his habitual sense of isolation and loneliness, give the dark tincture to his mature music.trout titlepage

And even the Trout gives expression — although in the most oblique way — to the melancholy that was constitutional in the composer: The earlier song he had written, also called The Trout, was the basis for his variations in the fourth movement of the quintet. The song tells the story of a bright, wily trout — “who gaily shoots past me like an arrow” — who then gets caught by an “cold-blooded” angler. The poet laments the loss of such a happy, bright fish. It is a miniature exposition of the theme, “Et in Arcadia ego.”

Somewhere east of Balmorhea, sunflowers begin showing up on the shoulders of the highway, great yellow clumps of them — sunshine growing from the roadside dirt.

I drive along in the shade under a cloud, but the sunlight rings the horizon with the tawny sand color of dry grass. I am an audience in the shade, but the spotlight is on a stage in all directions.

The rays of the sun break through the clouds in the north, making lines like rain hitting the ground.

There are lots of birds — finches, and swallows and swifts — darting around in the air over the road. I’m one of them.

Panamint Valleybw

You know you are a devoted traveler — or a complete idiot — when you go to Death Valley in July. No mere vacationer or tourist would risk it.

But it is the only way to get the genuine Death Valley experience. After all, a cool, refreshing wintertime Death Valley isn’t really Death Valley at all.

No, the real deal is baking hot and glaring with sunlight. The air shimmers, as if uncertain on its feet and about to faint.

That’s the way I first saw it, about 15 years ago in a car with no air-conditioning. It’s the only way to go.

Since then, I’ve been back many times, and always in midsummer. Death Valley National Monument is one of the wonders of the world, and it will disabuse you of any notion that nature is a comfortable place or that wilderness should be equated with warm, furry animals with big brown eyes.

Even before reaching the National Monument, I was astonished by Nevada. The road north from Las Vegas passed the Sheep, Spotted and Pintwater ranges, and bordered the Desert National Wildlife Refuge, though it doesn’t look like the land could support any wildlife aside from sidewinders and scorpions. Zabriskie Point

I passed the Joshua trees in the flatlands of the Nellis Bombing and Gunnery Range. The armed forces have used Nevada to test weapons, though how they can interpret the results, I’ll never know. How can a bomb crater look much different from a soda wash?

The names of places in the area are trying to tell you something: Coffin Peak, Ash Springs, Last Chance Range, Valley of Fire State Park, Furnace Creek, Chloride Cliff — each geographic name serves as a warning sign.

The heat, as I descended the Funeral Mountains past Corkscrew Peak, rose even higher. At Stovepipe Wells in the center of Death Valley, the air temperature was more than 120 degrees and the ground was cooked to 150. The average high temperature in July is 116 degrees, and the highest ever recorded was 134 — on July 10, 1913, the highest temperature ever recorded in the Western Hemisphere, just over 100 years ago. That is serious heat.

The air rushing in through the open car window could have roasted a Christmas goose. It was literally like the blast of heat you get when your face is too close to the oven door when you open it. It singed my eyebrows. badwaterroad deathvalley

In Death Valley in July, you are alone in an area 1 1/2 times the size of Delaware, and all you can see are baked rock and the laser beam of sunlight. If you falter, no one is there to rescue you. And there are no Circle-Ks, no Slurpees, and most of all, no shade.

At a rest stop, I picked up a park brochure titled ”How to Survive Your Trip Through Death Valley.” And they weren’t kidding.

Even at rest in the shade, the brochure said, you can perspire away a quart of water in an hour. It admonished me to drink water frequently.

I had been getting a headache; I thought it was from driving hundreds of miles, but the brochure said it was more likely the first stage of heatstroke and I should down great quantities of water. I drank a half-gallon immediately and began to feel better. By noon, I had drunk well more than a gallon. Strangely, no matter how much I drank, I never needed to pee.

The high point of any trip to Death Valley has to be the lowest point: Badwater, at 282 feet below sea level — another record for the hemisphere.

From your car, you look out on a vast sea of blinding white. You might mistake it for snow, but a closer look shows you the spiky, lacerating surface of evaporated salts, like the pavement of Hades. If you walk across it, it crunches under your boot sole like plaster, which it very nearly is.

Road to Dante's View

Road to Dante’s View

But the best vantage point on Badwater is more than a mile directly above it. Dante’s View is a scenic overlook on the crest of the Black Mountains at the end of a 12-mile road. It gives you a panoramic vista of Death Valley and its surrounding mountains, the Amargosas and Panamints. The flat basin stretches 100 miles north to south below you, glistening with the white of the salt pan.

You can see it over the shoulder of a soaring vulture a thousand feet below you, wondering what it will find to eat, and knowing it could have been you.

There are many roads through the park, but, for mortification of the flesh, none beats the West Side Road, a gravel route designed by Torquemada.

I love to drive my little sedan where sensible people fear to take their Range Rovers.

I’ve driven through dust, sand and slop, spinning my wheels and sliding back and forth through icy clay and spitting gravel. I always come prepared with a military-surplus entrenching tool and a Hudson Bay ax, though I have only had to use them twice. Once was on a dirt road near Dynamite Road in north Scottsdale, Ariz., as I got caught in the deep sand of a stream bed and had to dig the car out. In fact, I had to dig until I hit bedrock before I could muster any traction.

The second time was on the Navajo Reservation after a rain when the wheels sprayed so much mud on my running board that the Toyota weighed a good 50 percent more than it did when it came fully equipped from the factory. I had to use the ax to hack off layers of mudpack. I couldn’t get it all, and by the time I got back home, the remaining layer had so dried that it took a pneumatic drill to peel off the stucco. The whole thing looked like a gigantic corn dog with windshield wipers.

So, the thought of going down West Side Road had a certain martyrish appeal.

I packed a picnic lunch at Furnace Creek and headed south to the 36-mile West Side Road that would take me along the western edge of the valley. It is a hypocrite of a road: As you leave the solid pavement of Calif. 178, the gravel looks well graded and flat. Don’t believe it.westsideroad1

It turned out to be the worst piece of washboard driving I’ve ever suffered through. Usually, you can either slow down or speed up and escape the resonance of the corrugation, but not here. No matter how fast or how slow I drove, my teeth turned into castanets.

Every mile or so, there would come a smooth spot, just long enough to delude me into believing the rough part was over and dissuade me from turning back. But in a hundred yards, the bumping would begin again in earnest.

In fact, the rattle was so bad, it turned my pint of milk into butter. And when I stopped to make my sandwich, the bread had had the leavening shook out of it. So I buttered my matzoh and when I reached for my bottle of water, the vibration had turned it into seltzer. I received the benefit of sparkling water without having to pay the premium National Park price for Perrier.

There were several sights on the way, including the ruins of an old Borax works, which were now nothing more than a few mounds of dirt covering the archeology. The road flirted with the foothills of the Panamint range and every so often, a subsidiary road would head out perpendicular into the mountains. Most warned that they were recommended only for 4-wheel drive.devilsgolfcoursedeathvalley

They would have had to be better driving than the road I was on.

And the worst was the last bit of it. As I could see on the horizon the junction of my road with the main, smooth, paved road, the corrugation took a turn for the nasty.

The last bit looked especially smooth; it was white dust and gravel and promised a change from the rattle-bone right of way, but in fact, it was the worst lie of the day. When I got to that part, it was the equivalent of a speed bump every eight inches for a half mile. I had to take it in first gear.

When I finally made it back to the pavement, I made a solemn promise to the Toyota that I would not venture out onto the gravel again for the duration of the trip. The car had made it through with its only damage being a dangling muffler.

It took me a good half hour of driving into Nevada before my eyesight regained control of its vertical hold.

indiana flatness

Not all of the Midwest is as flat as its reputed to be. Most of it rolls like an ocean. You ride to the top of one hill only to see a thousand others, trailing off into the distance.

However, in a few places, such as northwestern Indiana, the sea is calmed, and you are struck with the stunning horizontality of the place. There is nothing vertical that is not man-made: only the power poles that parallel the road through Remington.

You can stand in a field, and the top half of your world is blue sky and the bottom 40 percent is green farmland. Only a thin ribbon, perhaps 10 percent of the whole, rides around the horizon and holds within it almost everything you can see or name that is not grass or sky.

All the roads, for instance, sit visually just along that rim line, like cording. You can see the trucks running along the horizon and the cars on the interstate.

Houses ring the line, and the tractors pulling across the farm fields sit up high on that horizon, with wheels in the green and exhaust pipe in the blue.

It is not a ”big sky,” like they claim for Montana. The sky is too featureless and bland to seem big. It is pervasive, heavy, low, expansive but not big.

Perhaps it is the humidity in the middle of summer that makes the thick air seem like the bottom edge of the sky, pulling down your sense of it to human size.

But the land, that flatness that edges out away from you on all sides, does seem big. And it seems even bigger at night.

The planet has seemed to shrink dramatically over the course of the century. You can fly from New York to Paris in four hours. Listen to Russian TV news. Take the train at 200 mph in Japan.

But if you want to shake the world out and make it larger again, get up at 3 in the morning and drive across the flatness of Indiana and Illinois. It is dark, and the stars are thick as the July humidity. And the world seems quiet, empty and stretched once more to full size.

The sky grows upward as the stars populate it, light years away. Not only is the Earth big but you can see you are a pebble at the bottom of a very deep universe.

You drive alone for miles and the only thing you see is distant headlights, like fireflies, flitting along the horizon line that shows up as the boundary between two different shades of black.

One set of headlights gets closer. You recognize a kindred spirit, someone else is driving in the lonely, vacant night. You wait a very long time for the lights to draw close. They are still miles away.

As the car gets nearer and dims its headlights — that salute of recognition in the dark — you see it is the God of the Nighttime Highway, whose eyes are headlights and whose halogen gaze keeps the world from disappearing when everyone else is asleep.

And he passes and you drop once more into the large darkness.

god of nitetime hiway