It was like a dream come true.
Except that it wasn't my dream. It wasn't even remotely on my radar. Not even at the bottom of my bucket list.
Driving cross-country. Yes, I said driving. In a car. Almost 3,000 long miles.
The Gateway Arch in St. Louis, Mo., is a site to behold. The shiny monument is a sandwich of stainless steel on the outside, carbon steel on the inside and concrete in the middle.
Phyllis R. Sigal
Nope, not really my idea of fun. Except that it was fun. It was a blast. It was like nothing else I had ever done.
And I loved every minute of it.
The best part? Besides spending all of that quality time with my husband Bruce and son Leland, it was that I didn't have to drive. Not one mile out of that 2,853 miles from West Virginia to California. I left the driving to them.
There is so much to see in this big country of ours, and many choices to be made when making the trek. We couldn't do it all, so we picked some highlights. We picked some cities in which we wanted to stop for lunch or dinner and an overnight; other cities, we wanted to spend a few days. We picked a route and some sites along that route. Sometimes, we'd just see a sign and decide to stop.
It was an adventure, and with today's GPS technology, we never got lost. Not once. Well, maybe just once ... on our way to Cadillac Ranch. We could see it; we just couldn't figure out how to get to it.
We decided to take the southern route - I wanted to avoid snow and cold. That gave us a chance to "get our kicks on Route 66" for some of the trip. And, enamored with the Southwest, I really wanted to spend some time in New Mexico. Bruce wanted to go to the Grand Canyon. Leland was just happy to be getting a ride to Los Angeles, which would be his new home.
Off we went, with a basic plan of action, a few hotel reservations, a container of cookies and a bag of pistachios from friends, a book on tape ("Gone Girl") and a sense of wonder about what the next couple of weeks would hold.
Day 1: Wheeling to Columbus to Indianapolis, Ind. (five hours)
Day 1 was a driving day, with a couple of initiatives: visit my friend Joyce in Columbus, because it was on the way, and celebrate the Slippery Noodle's 50th anniversary of ownership by the Yeagy family. The Slippery Noodle is a blues club in Indianapolis, which Bruce happened to come across. The Noodle also claims to be Indiana's oldest bar, continuously operating in the same building since 1850.
The Slippery Noodle's party was a fun one, with music by Robert Randolph and the Family Band and tasty pub food - worth the stop on our way.
Day 2: Indianapolis to St. Louis, Mo. (three hours)
This leg of the journey was so flat - not what we West Virginians are used to. Land to the left, land to right. Just flat-out flat. Flat. Did I say it was flat? Pancake flat. Board flat. Flat as a pricked bladder. Flat as the delicious pizza we had for lunch at Pi in St. Louis.
To break up the monotony of flat, we saw some crazy things on our flat way to St. Louis.
We accidentally got on the "world's largest" kick. We saw the world's largest wind chime in Casey, Ill. - and were hooked, wanting to seek out more. Across the street from the wind chime was the site of what will be the world's largest rocking chair.
Just down the road was the world's largest golf tee, which measures more than 30 feet tall. We were disappointed there was no world's largest golf ball - however, I read on the Casey, Ill., website there are plans for an 18-foot golf ball to be placed on top of the tee this year. These were just the first of many more world's largest we would see. Others we would come across were the largest cross (and the second largest cross) and the largest chocolate fountain.
Upon arrival in St. Louis, it's the massive, shiny, silvery Gateway Arch - a memorial to westward expansion - that grabs your attention. For a fee, you can take a tram - each tiny car seats five, barely - and ride to the top of the arch. Narrow windows afford a view from the top, but I think the most interesting viewpoint is standing underneath the amazing masterpiece.
The structure is a sandwich, made of stainless steel on the outside, carbon steel on the inside and concrete in the middle. A museum, theaters, visitor center and two stores are in the building that sits in the shadow of the structure, at the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial, one of the country's many national parks.
Day 3: St. Louis to Oklahoma City, Okla. (eight hours)
We started following U.S. 44 somewhere along here, which parallels and has replaced Route 66. Route 66 has been designated a historic byway.
Lots of history can be seen along Route 66, including old signs, old gas stations, old hotels, ghost towns and more of the "world's largest."
There are many easy offs and ons to experience the history of Route 66.
In the vein of world's largest and world's oldest, another couple of record-holders were part of Day 3. We had lunch at the oldest, still-operating Steak & Shake in the country. Cool signage here.
Also this day, we saw the current world's largest rocking chair. It's been the world's largest since 2008.
However, if you recall we saw the "site of the world's largest rocking chair" on Day 2, so it's hard to say how long today's rocking chair will hold on to its honor. Before 2008, the largest one was in Texas, according to the cashier at the Route 66 gift shop at the site.
There's lots of competition between the "world's largest," but more in the rocking chair contest, she said. We found that amusing.
Because Oklahoma City is known for its stockyards, we had to go to the Cattleman's Steakhouse for dinner. In the category of "firsts," we tried the "lamb fries" on the menu. What is a lamb fry, you ask? You'll just have to go there and find out.
Day 4: Oklahoma City to Santa Fe., N.M. (eight hours)
On our way to my pick city of the trip!
But before we got to Santa Fe, we stopped in Amarillo, Texas - my first visit to that state. This day's trip was full of excess. Windmills - I'd never seen so many along the highway as on this drive. Cows - I've never seen so many cows at one time.
We also stopped to see Cadillac Ranch, an art installation with 10 old Cadillacs partly buried in concrete, with their front ends slanted up in the air. They are all spray painted with names, hearts, peace signs, logos, including West Virginia University's "flying WV" and more. Cans and cans of spray paint are lined up single file next to the cars. All were empty.
The art installation was created in 1974 by three artists. The cars are angled to correspond to the Pyramid of Giza in Egypt. The stop was worth the effort.
And then we arrived in Santa Fe.
Mountains, adobe, pinks and blues, and stars. A gorgeous city of just 60,000 residents, it boasts more than 250 restaurants, hundreds of art galleries, the only outside opera venue in the world, a symphony, a lovely botanical garden - three days really weren't enough.
Lunch at Vinaigrette was one of our favorite spots along the way. Leland's Cuban sandwich was so good it made him cry, he said. My salad, "Pass the Peas," was healthy and delicious and very green.
We stayed in Santa Fe for Day 5 and Day 6.
There was horseback riding in the hills, a motorized harp-playing-hippie in the town square, hand-crafted jewelry from Native Americans and so much more. Because we spent so much time there, a more complete travel story on this beautiful city will be forthcoming.
Day 7: Santa Fe to Flagstaff, Ariz.
"Standing on a corner in Flagstaff, Arizona, such a fine sight to see. It's a girl, my lord, in a flat ...... "
OK, the song says "Winslow." But, according to material published about Flagstaff, Jackson Browne really did write the song about Flagstaff. But because Winslow had a better ring to it, he changed the name of the town for the sake of good lyrics.
While Santa Fe was gorgeous, the drive from there to Flagstaff could have been one of the most miraculous sights I've ever seen.
I don't know how anyone could ever tire of the scenery of the mountains and mesas beyond the expansive flatland. There were pinks, reds, greens and browns and a blue, blue sky as far as the eye could see.
A train track ran parallel to the highway - a scene out of the wild, wild west. And much to our delight, real tumbleweeds tumbled across the highway.
We drove through the Painted Desert and Petrified Forest National Park - more landscape marvels. Inside the Petrified Forest, it was illegal to come out with any pieces of the ancient wood. But outside, there were commercial lots full of pieces of every imaginable size - all for sale.
Day 8: Flagstaff to Sedona and back to Flagstaff
And the drive from Flagstaff to Sedona was even more spectacular.
Thirty miles through the Coconino National Forest .... the two-lane drive started out smooth - then, it turned into something quite dizzying and unexpected.
The road wound down the mountain, through the Oak Creek Canyon, round and round and round we wound through hills covered with massive ponderosa pines.
And if you looked off the side of the road, it was a straight drop. But it was gorgeous, and the sight at the bottom of the canyon, the famous Red Rocks of Sedona, was awe-inspiring. We found a natural spring where we loaded up on drinking water. It was a perfect spot for scenic photos.
Sedona is all about hiking, trolley tours and off-road Jeep adventures. There are energizing vortexes, a church built into the red rock, and cute little shops and restaurants that line the main drag. I could have sat at a cafe in the shadow of the red rocks for hours.
Day 9: Flagstaff/ Walnut Canyon National Monument
Walnut Canyon is several miles northeast of Flagstaff, Ariz. In the cliff dwelling community, homes were built on ledges throughout the canyon, and can be seen as you meander down the trails.
The homesites are claimed by various groups today including Hopi clans who trace their migrations through Walnut Canyon and its dwellings, according to a canyon trail guide.
The Walnut Canyon farming community especially flourished between 1125 and 1250, with the cliff dwellings inhabited by the Sinagua, which is Spanish for "without water."
The elevation at the canyon rim is about 7,000 - it makes breathing a bit difficult. It's also important to drink lots of water to stay hydrated at such a high elevation.
Downtown Flagstaff is a nice little area, about three blocks square, with a number of gift shops, restaurants and hotels.
A gem of a find in Flagstaff was the best pizza ever - outside of Italy, I think. Our Sedona Pink Jeep off-road tour guide told us about Pizzicletta, a tiny place with one long table that seats 14 people. Two high-top bars accommodated about eight other diners.
Pizzicletta is a combination of the words pizza and bicicletta. The eatery's owner was inspired by a trip through Italy on bicycle in 2006 to learn about food and culture.
The pizza is neapolitan-style and perfect. The olive oil gelato - made in-house - was the smoothest, creamiest I've ever tasted, even better than the gelato I had in Rome years ago.
Day 10: The Grand Canyon
This, too, will have an expanded story.
Suffice to say now, it was quite a grand day here. Sure, it's a hole in the ground - as I was told before we headed west - but quite an extraordinary one.
Day 11-13: Las Vegas
The drive from The Grand Canyon to Las Vegas was fascinating. Flat, flat, flat and brown, with tufts of green sagebrush dotting the terrain, all in the shadow of tall mountains with circus-tent-like tops.
Then the road snakes through rocky mountains, with very little civilization evident in these parts.
We made a quick stop at Hoover Dam. The tours were finished for the day, so we just took a walk along the road. It was less than inspiring, but perhaps hearing the history would have added interest.
And, then there was Vegas.
My first impression?
Get me out of here! Give me my hiking, my horseback riding and off-road adventures! (What? Who is this woman?) After several days relishing the wonders of nature, the bright lights of the Vegas strip were a bit off-putting.
But once we had a great dinner and the next day's lunch under our belts, and Leland and I had hiked the strip's shopping centers, I was good.
Las Vegas is what it is, and once you realize it exists purely to entertain the masses in a myriad of ways, it's a little easier to appreciate it.
The number of upscale restaurants, casinos and shows seems infinite.
Highlights had to be Cirque de Soleil's water phenomenon "O," the fountain show at Bellagio, the glass artist Dale Chihuly's glass ceiling also at Bellagio, and the Venetian's remarkable scaled replica of the Rialto bridge and canal complete with gondolas.
The two great meals were at Wolfgang Puck's Trattoria De Lupo at Mandalay Bay Resort and Casino and at the Mon Ami Gabi at Paris Las Vegas.
The al fresco lunch at Mon Ami Gabi afforded a perfect view of the fountain at Bellagio. What a treat when the music started playing and the water started dancing!
It's also worth checking out the old part of Vegas, the Fremont Street Experience. It's sort of Vegas' second string, but it's kitschy. It's a little less pretty, a lot more smoky, but the prices are right!
We had breakfast at Hash-A-Go-Go, a diner across the street from the Fremont Street Experience - the heart of vintage Las Vegas.
Hash-A-Go-Go claims to serve all four food groups: "Big," "Bigger" "Humongous" and "OMG."
Bruce's sage fried chicken with bacon waffles, crowned with fried leeks and a maple reduction was amazing - as much a work of art as it was delicious.
Because it was Halloween, we were served by Smurfette - did I say kitschy?
Day 14: Los Angeles:
We arrived in Los Angeles. While happy to be in L.A., what a melancholy feeling I had. We had come to the end of the road, together. It was an amazing, unforgettable, cross-country trip of great experiences, great food, the biggest this and that, and lots of "firsts."
But the pangs of sadness of course came from the realization I'd be leaving my baby 2,853 miles away.
I was thankful for the time together, but not quite ready to be heading east.
We had a few days of fun in L.A., hiking to the Hollywood Hills sign, a delicious dinner at Nikita on the Pacific Ocean in Malibu and visits with favorite relatives.
Then it was time to fly home, and savor those days on the road, now a wonderful chapter of favorite memories.
And when I think back upon our roadtrippin' days, I think not only about the experiences, but how easy it would have been to say, "No, this is too hard of a trip. I can't do this."
But it wasn't. It was remarkably stress-free, and we really hadn't planned it out all that well!
So, my advice to anyone who has ever considered a cross-country trip is this:
Decide your route. Decide your budget. Decide your timeframe. Decide your stops.
And decide to go.
That's all. Just go.
It'll be worth it.