Saturday, October 28, 2017

The New Road Home

You may recall that my original plan was to return to the PNW from PA via US60 and US93.

I scuttled that plan in favor of picking up the three bucket list roads I've just driven: Skyline Drive, Blue Ridge Parkway and Natchez Trace Parkway. That has put me way down south in the land of cotton -- in Natchez, MS -- pondering a new road home.

I considered driving the Great River Road north along the Mississippi river, but have decided against it. First, it's a road that deserves a longer timeframe than I'm willing to give it right now, to really appreciate the history, heritage, etc., that it has to offer. Second, my research indicates that it is much better driven North to South, following the expansion of the mighty river. Third, driving it now would put me in upper Minnesota going into winter, and leave me a long westward route home along the high line. Doesn't sound good.

I could just bolt home along interstates, but there isn't a great diagonal route and I've driven them all many times before. So, I've decided to try a compromise. Starting tomorrow, I'm going to take an express, interstate route west -- getting the vast expanse of Texas behind me as fast as possible -- and turn north in Arizona. That gives me the option of driving US93 -- my original plan -- if the weather is good, or continuing on interstates going north if the weather is bad.

This map shows the path I have in mind. The waypoints are arbitrary -- just to get Google Maps to follow the route I want rather than automatically draw an interstate route -- not necessarily points of interest or importance:

Unlike the Great River Road, there is not much on the US93 route, so it'll still be a pretty quick trip home with some nice scenery along the way. If I make it to the northern terminus at the Canadian border in western Montana, I'll head west on US2 across the Idaho panhandle and Washington. If I bail out anywhere along the way, it'll involve the usual suspects: I-84, I-90, etc.

In theory, I think this is a good compromise plan and I'm happy with it. If successful, I will simply have swapped out US60 in favor of three other great roads and an express interstate transfer. If it doesn't go well, I'll still get home by mid-November after a pretty epic 2+ month road trip... Stay tuned!

Friday, October 27, 2017

Natchez Trace — Part 4

Once we got south of the madhouse called Jackson, MS -- I swear the locals use the Natchez Trace as an intra-urban speedway! -- the road returned to its pretty, varied, lightly travelled self. The sky was a little cloudy at times, but the weather remained excellent for almost the entire day.

There are many historical sites along the trail, each one of them telling a small piece of the story. I've only shared a few along the way, but they are all worth at least a minute if you ever drive this road. Of particular note, there are several ancient indian mounds, of which the Emeral Mound is probably the best. It started to rain pretty hard just as I began my climb up the hill, so this is all you get to see:

A definite highlight of the day was a lunch stop at the famous (seriously) Old Country Store Restaurant in Lorman, MS. The proprietor of this 100+ year old establishment is famous (seriously) for his fried chicken, and his reputation is not in error. I put some serious South in my mouth!

Reaching the end of this excellent drive, I took the mandatory photo of my rig at the southern terminus sign. Contrary to my expected plan from 2014, we did this drive in 4 days. I could see breaking the third leg in half and making 5 days out of it, but you could also do it in 3 days and still get the full experience. This road has beauty, history, nature and folklore, what else could you want?

Another complete and successful road trip is now officially on the blog! What's next? Well, I've been having a running debate with myself about that for several days and I'm still not sure. I plan to do some catching up with myself, sort through my gear and have a meeting with my dog, then we'll see... Stay tuned!

Thursday, October 26, 2017

Natchez Trace — Part 3

The Natchez Trace was a different road today, between Tupelo and Jackson, MS. First, we definitely passed between two distinct ecosystems. The mixed hardwood forest we'd driven through for two days, abruptly gave way to a narrow transitional belt of scrub pines and other unidentified flora.

Almost as abruptly, that was followed by a thick southern pine forest which I never got a good shot of, but which surrounded us for the remainder of our day's drive.

Second, the narrative shifted from stories of settlers who used the Trace, to the plight of various native cultures who lived here and lost their land over time through a series of treaties, purchases and simple evictions. In the process, the new narrative also included some mention of French and British dominion at various times. I'm tempted to brush up on my Early American history!

Third, there was much more traffic on the road in this section. The Park Service advertises that 5 million "visitors" per year use the parkway. I've been skeptical of that number, simply because the traffic I've seen is orders of magnitude less than would be required to meet it. Most of the traffic today was clearly local people who use the parkway for commutation and other regional travel. I'm guessing the Park Service counts every vehicle that uses the road for any purpose.

Perhaps for a related reason, the quality of the road in this section is not as good as it is up north. Down here, it is rougher and less well maintained... Maybe just more worn out? Nevertheless, it's been another good day of beautiful and informative driving. We should reach the southern terminus in Natchez, MS, tomorrow... Stay tuned!

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

Happy: Two More States I've Peed In!

Hi, it's me, Happy The Sled Dog!

I've had a very successful day on the Natchez Trace. In addition to lots of exploration with my nose, I've also done some good work from my tail. This morning I left some pee mail in Alabama.

By end of business, I'd also done my business in Mississippi, too. Macgellan says we'll be in Louisiana in a couple of days, so it'll be a trifecta of new states for me. That will also fill in almost all of my map for the Southeast, except for Florida... Stay tuned!

Natchez Trace — Part 2

The Natchez Trace is such a beautiful road it's hard to imagine it as a "snake-infested, mosquito-beset, robber-haunted, Indian-traveled forest path." It was also a constant work in process as new pathways were cut to accommodate changing natural conditions. There are many places along the way where you can see small sections of the original -- or at least old -- Trace.

A dozen or so miles into our drive this morning, we crossed into the very northwest corner of Alabama. A few miles after that we crossed the beautiful Tennessee River. In case you are wondering, the deal that Happy and I have on road trips is simple: If we stop for more than a minute, she's allowed to get out of the truck for a look-see in her own way. Believe me, she makes the most of her explorations!

One of the heaviest early uses of the Natchez Trace was by folks from Kentucky and Tennessee who would build flat boats to float their crops and merchandise down the Tennessee-Ohio-Mississippi River complex to the Gulf. There they would sell their goods -- including the boats for lumber -- then walk back north on the Trace. Steam power changed this routine to a round-trip river journey.

Until midday today, the Trace has been almost completely tree-line by various hardwoods. We've now crossed one of the major ecosystem dividing lines and are into some more open areas with softer trees. The Trace crosses several ecosystems and many watersheds along its 444 mile course.

The weather has been spectacular and is predicted to continue tomorrow, but Friday is supposed to be pretty crappy. So, we are going to push a little farther than we have the past two days and aim for Jackson, MS. After that it will be a shorter run to the terminus in Natchez, MS, to minimize bad weather driving... Stay tuned!

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Natchez Trace — Collinwood, TN

Picking up where I left off in my last post... After having lunch at a family diner in the small rural town of Collinwood, TN, the weather was overcast and not encouraging for an enjoyable continuation on the Natchez Trace. I inquired at the town's "Welcome Center" about the possibility of a place to stay, and was told that the couple who own the local hardware store have two "motel rooms" available. A phone call and a walk across the street later, I'd booked myself in at the Coast To Coast Motel:

Everything you need on an expedition, right? You might be surprised to know that this establishment and its innkeepers are given complimentary mentioned in an article in the 9/13/15 edition of The Washington Post's Fall Travel Magazine. Happy and I are very well set up for the night!

Looking across the street, I noticed a well renovated and maintained old train depot. Turns out it is the town's library and museum.

Although it's much more library than museum, it has a small but interesting collection of memorabilia.

My favorite is the timetable from 1918 for the local train service. Looks to me like you had one shot a day getting into or out of town!

Having had lunch at the local family diner, I've been informed there's another restaurant "just down the road" and will give it a try for dinner. The weather is supposed to be perfect again tomorrow morning, so Happy and I will hit the road with Tupelo, MS, as our tentative goal... Stay tuned!

Natchez Trace — Part 1

Happy and I were on station at a reasonable hour this morning, positioned to begin our leisurely drive of the Natchez Trace. Looking back at my May 2014 post about my first sampling of this part of the road, I don't think I can do any better explaining the history, various sites and overall experience. Rather than repeat it, I will reprise my invitation for you to read it for yourself.

What's different this time, of course, is the season. Rather than lush green everywhere, it's now ebbing toward winter with a pretty good showing of fall color. The sun was low in the sky this morning, making the views vibrant but the photography challenging.

The Natchez Trace is an impossibly beautiful, possibly perfect road. In addition to lovely views around every bend, the roadway itself is very smooth, well maintained and made of a composition that generates little tire noise. The speed limit is 50mph, but I found that 45mph was a better speed for fully enjoying the experience. On top of everything, there was practically no traffic besides a few bikes, motorcycles and an occasional car.

As the morning wore on, the sky started filling with puffy little photogenic clouds. What a drive!

Early afternoon, I pulled off in the small rural town of Collinwood, TN, and found a typical little family diner for lunch. By the time I was done eating, the sky had filled with clouds and darkened with threat of rain. Rather than push on in less than ideal conditions, I inquired at the town's "welcome center" about the possibility of a place to stay. What follows is a story worthy of its own post... Stay tuned!

Monday, October 23, 2017

Next Up: Natchez Trace

Greetings from Nashville! After our weekend in Atlanta, Happy and I have driven here to be in position for our next road trip...

Back in May, 2014 -- during our US70 "Coast-to-End" road trip -- Happy and I spent a day on this amazing road and it's been on our list ever since.

You can read an intro and overview in the post about it and view the National Park Service website.

At 444 miles from just south of Nashville to the bluffs of the lower Mississippi River, it's about the same length and driving conditions as the Blue Ridge Parkway we just completed. So, we plan to drive the Natchez Trace in about four days... Stay tuned!

Thursday, October 19, 2017

Blue Ridge Parkway — Part 4

We climbed out of Asheville, NC, early this morning, and were almost immediately rewarded with our best view of the entire drive. Morning fog on the valleys is a special treat.

The last hundred miles of the Blue Ridge Parkway are the most visually striking. I would attribute that to the relatively high elevation and sharper terrain of the mountains. At 6,000 feet or so, the highest point on the road is 2,000-3,000 feet higher than most of the peaks, gaps and saddles so far.

It is also the most challenging part of the road to drive, with steeper climbs/descents and sharper turns than elsewhere. The fall foliage has mostly given up, with only the evergreens holding on. The consensus among other travelers and locals is that it hasn't been a very good year for fall color.

We reached the end of the Parkway at Cherokee National Forest. Overall it was a pretty and enjoyable drive. We did it in four days, averaging a little over 100 miles per day. That amounts to 3-4 hours of driving with several more hours stopping for various lengths of time. It could be done faster or slower, but I think four days is a good benchmark.

After continuing south into North Georgia, we are spending the night with very good friends near Lake Rabun. Tomorrow we will continue south to Atlanta for a weekend of shenanigans, and decide on what's up for next week... Stay tuned!

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Blue Ridge Parkway — Part 3

It was cold but clear when we resumed our drive on the Blue Ridge Parkway this morning, not far from the town of Boone, NC. I'll start off with your daily foliage update photo:

I've been intrigued by the spectrum of fall foliage along the drive. In some places, the trees have barely turned color at all. In others, they've already lost their leaves entirely. I've mused about the possibilities of microclimates, elevation differences, relative densities of particular species, orientation to the sun on mountainsides, etc. No clue what the answer is.

So far, this has been the most interesting and view-licious part of the parkway. The mountains seem to be higher and the road more exposed. There's also more geology going on to highlight the drama.

For those of you who have been traveling along on this excursion from the beginning, you will see that I've succeeded in my quest to find the bit of road shown in my first post. You will also notice that my photo is not nearly as striking!

I'm disappointed at the quality of photos I've been able to take. I partly blame my basic travel camera, but I can cut it some slack because I think it's very hard to capture the views on a drive-by basis. I suspect the best photos available were shot with very high quality gear, after days of waiting for perfect conditions, and ample enhancement on the computer.

That said, I think my shots are good enough to give you a flavor of the views. In these two, you can see the difference in color between areas only a few miles apart.

Truth be told, the road is getting a little boring. The routine of forest drive, side hill climb, saddle apex, side hill descent, forest drive is feeling like wash, rinse, repeat. We are about 80 miles from the end of the parkway and I will be ready for it to be completed... Stay tuned!

Monday, October 16, 2017

Blue Ridge Parkway — Part 2

Happy and I had a bit of an adventurous night camping out. The wind came up pretty strong, we had intermittent periods of rain and the temperature dropped a lot. When I rousted her from her truck house this morning, she was wearing her "I don't like it" face, but a brisk coffee-walk perked her right up. We packed up and hit the road just as the day started to clear and temps came up from the 40s.

Yesterday I mentioned that many of the "overlooks" are blocked by trees. Here's a perfect example of how it's still a good view, but it could be a lot better with a little pruning!

On the other hand, there are still plenty of spectacular, unobstructed views to be had. Ironically, many of the very best views do not have overlooks available and the best you can do is lift your foot from the gas pedal and take a peek as you drive by.

The hardwood forests continued throughout southern Virginia, but seemed to be well past their peak once into North Carolina. I'm guessing recent weather has taken its toll on them and they've gone from green to bare pretty quickly. The NC evergreens are still going strong, of course, and are markedly more prevalent.

So far I've shown you forest views and overlook views, but there's a third view that is common on the parkway: Open areas across gaps and saddles. This picture isn't very good due to the lighting creeping out my camera shooting through the windshield, but it gives you the gist of it.

We have stopped in Boone, NC, and checked into a motel. The temps are predicted to get down into the low 30s tonight and neither of us really feel like dealing with that. Tomorrow we will continue south down to the Asheville area... Stay tuned!

Sunday, October 15, 2017

Blue Ridge Parkway — Part 1

Happy and I were at the north entrance to the Blue Ridge Parkway at 9am sharp, right on schedule. The fog was very thick and I thought about waiting for it to burn off, but then figured we would pretty quickly climb above it. I was right and we were soon rewarded with our first excellent view.

Much of the route is a lovely drive through dense hardwood forests. Thicker at lower elevations and thinner at higher ones. There wasn't much traffic and we cruised right along.

There are many turnouts, one every mile or so, throughout the parkway. They are all called "overlooks" despite the fact that many are in the woods and don't look at anything besides trees. Some may once have had views, but the trees in front of them have long since grown up to block the view. According to a park ranger, that's because only the road and a few feet on either side of it actually belong to the park. Everything else belongs to the forest service and they will, as he said, "do whatever they want with it" whether it improves the visitor's experience or not.

Then, of course, there are the overlooks that truly live up to their reputation. We stopped at a number of them, drove slowly through quite a few more, but skipped many just because it could take forever to catch them all. My shots don't do the views justice, but they're worth clicking on for a larger look.

I'm probably a week or so before peak foliage color season, but the many hardwoods were doing their thing and the few softwoods provided nice contrast. All in all, it was a lovely drive all day long.

We've stopped at Rocky Knob, about a third of the way along the parkway, where Happy and I will camp for the night. For us, camping is a minimalist affair, with her sleeping in her backseat truck house and me on a comfy air mattress in the back canopy. I can boil water for coffee and soup. What else does a guy really need?… Stay tuned!