Escape to Nowhere

[Author’s Note: as many of us who love to travel had to cancel plans and are stuck at home, enjoy taking a vicarious journey with me on a 7500-mile cross-America trip we took a couple of summers ago. These days I’m reading travel stories, finding them a comforting escape, pleasantly reminding me of the real thing. So if you’re up for a little adventure, come along for the ride.]

West Virginia

We left NJ yesterday and drove 500 miles to West Virginia and the Ace Adventure Resort. It’s tucked into the mountains and we rented a cozy little A-frame with a view of the Lake. A pleasant surprise was that our Chalet #2 came with a hot tub that was really a gift after 9 hours of driving.

Charles Levin Author

Amy at our Minden, WVA Chalet

The next day we got up at 7 am to meet our group for rafting the New River. The water was high and turbulent. Running several Class IV and V rapids with waves of water pouring on us, we dipped and bounced through every hole and haystack. We have both rafted several times before but this was far and away the most exciting and scary. My wife Amy got washed overboard in one rapid, but Daniel, our guide, grabbed her by the shoulder strap of the flotation device and pulled her back in. From then on, she leaned in more and made it all the way. The New River Gorge is steep granite walls covered with verdant green trees and shrubs. Rising maybe 150 feet. We had a perfect day. Blue sky with humble wisps of clouds. 65-degree water and 72-degree air.

Charles Levin Author

New River Gorge

However, getting soaked repeatedly gave Amy the shivers. So when we returned to our chalet, I was happy to share the hot tub staring up at the tall pines that selectively allowed the dappled sunlight to fall upon us. Tomorrow we head to Asheville, NC.

North Carolina Day 3

After a 6 hour drive, we arrive in little Flat Rock, NC; We had a cute place on a lake with canoes you could just jump in and go.

 We took the check-in girl’s advice and bought tickets to a show of Elton John/Billie Joel impersonators and headed into Hendersonville to celebrate our anniversary. On the way, Main Street was blocked and swarming with people. Grabbing the last parking spot in a field, we waded into the crowd, Hundreds of people were milling around the extraordinary antique cars lined up for blocks, A concert was happening in a large open area street-side park. We were already loving Hendersonville. The town was alive with street cafes and bars packed to the walls. We stopped at Brandy’s restaurant. They did a little shuffling and squeezed us onto the last table – serendipity at work again. The restaurant was covered with odd, eclectic art and smelled of jasmine. Somehow it worked and the dinner was to-die-for. Right next door was the theater – seating in the round for about 400. The young singers had the John/Joel songbook down and they sang their hearts out, Here’s one of my favorites done so well (check out the sax),

The crowd loved it–two standing ovations, Afterwards we strolled the town with the bars still happening. We peered through the windows of the old soda shop and bakery. What a marvelous town.

Thoughts of a little paddle around the lake in the morning, then off to Tennessee.

Day 4 Natchez Trace State Park, TN

Lengthy drive – maybe 8 hours to Natchez Trace State Park in Tennessee. Our first night camping this trip. I had tried out the tent and sleeping bags in the backyard before we left. I got the hang of setting them up. I even slept in the tent before leaving home and discovered the foam mat was too hard. So I bought air mattresses. The light was waning around eight o’clock when I inflated the air mattresses for the first time and the instructions said that I should let them sit for several hours the first time since they stretch. Oh well–no time for that. After a quick campsite assembly, I cooked tuna we had purchased back in NC. Blackened with spices from way back in West Virginia on our new Coleman stove. it was heavenly. Little sautéed spinach. Then dark and to sleep. Not a bad night, even on our soft stretching mattresses. No-fuss camp breakfast and we were back on the road.

Day 5 Eufaula, OK

Another 10 hours on the road, but well worth it. GPS didn’t know this place. So, by trial-and-lots-of-errors we found Eufaula Lake. Our campsite overlooked the 102,000-acre lake. After we shooed away the geese, we did a faster set up that time and a quicker dinner since it looked like rain was coming. As we slipped into our sleeping bags with a soft pine-scented breeze wafted through our tent, Amy said, “This is great!” That made it for me. She was a real trooper and for her and for that I was in love.

Charles Levin Author

Eufaula Lake, OK

The next morning we awoke to the sound of hundreds of birds. I got an early swim in the lake and we caught breakfast at Amy’s Restaurant in Eufaula. What a trip.

Day 6 & 7 Santa Fe, NM

Our longest drive yet–13 hours and we arrived at the lux-compared-to-camping Las Palomas B&B. What a treat. King Size Bed and a shower. The fridge and fireplace in the room were a plus. We were hungry and dead tired at 9 PM, so we stopped at the first place within walking distance of our B&B, Vanessi – a schmaltzy piano player welcomed us with ‘What a Wonderful World’ and ‘Strangers in the Night.’ He seemed to have a real fan base here among the 80-year-olds who danced and cheered his long flourishes. Good dinner and catatonic sleep.

Next day it was the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum, which was truly impressive. Had no idea of the diversity of her work from dramatic NYC skylines, to abstracts, to the NM desert scenes you think of. Married to Alfred Stieglitz (quite the power couple of the ’20s), she produced work over 70 years and died at 99.

Did a fun tram tour of the town and the Art galleries. Charlice, our tour guide, was an enthusiastic booster for Santa Fe. The town has 250 Art Galleries and is the site for filming one of our favorite TV shows, Longmire.

Charles levin Author

Wayne, Amy, and Me – New Mexico

That night. riding out to The Pointe in Rio Rancho we saw and heard our old friend, Wayne, perform. He is now a full-time musician and it showed in the depth and breadth of his performance. His jazzemenco versions of old standards, combined with elegant pieces that he wrote, were even better than I remembered. Small audience, but nonetheless he had two groupies there. Rebuilding his life after a devastating divorce and bankruptcy, music seemed to have brought him through it.

Day 8 – Flagstaff, AZ

Little shorter drive today – about 7 hours and we arrived at our motel. A little better than I expected. The pool and hot tub were about 10 steps from our door. We were in time to catch about an hour of sun and a swim. The cool 70s dry mountain air felt great after our days in the hot desert. It was only a one-nighter, but we wanted to make the most of it. We caught a surprisingly good dinner at a casual place called Busters–I can still smell the garlic. Then wound our way up into the hills at dusk to the Lowell Observatory. It’s over 100 years old and the place where they first discovered Pluto. It was the first time I could ever see Jupiter and it’s moons live through one of the several telescopes they had set up. Maybe the most impressive of which was the Clarke telescope built in 1892 and one of the more powerful at the time shown in the pic below.

Charles Levin Author

Amy at the Clarke Telescope, Lowell Observatory, Flagstaff, AZ

As the sky darkened and the air-cooled, we listened to stories of the constellations that our guide pointed out in the clear sky. Mesmerizing place.

The next morning we did a quick tour around Historic Flagstaff. This town had more outdoor clothing and outfitter stores than I could remember in one place. Got a much-needed haircut from a local barber who had a native American drawl and showed us old articles that featured his place in books and magazines. The locals streamed in and gossiped about people they knew – friends and funerals. Ever reminded that people always make the place.

Day 9 to 14 – Las Vegas

A drive through the most desolate landscape we’d seen yet across Route 40 (and some old Route 66) through most of Arizona and finally to a rest stop in Kingman. Another unexpectedly good lunch at the Iron Skillet (food served on steaming iron skillets) at the unpretentious truck stop.

We turned North on 85 and unplanned, we saw an arrow for the Hoover Dam. Amy was very excited and wanted to see it. We’ve both only seen pictures and movies of it before. The scope and size were overwhelming. What a site – tucked between the semi-arid red rock mountains. Got to wonder how they did it. What happened to the America that used to build exceptional things like this monument to ingenuity or powerful rockets to send men to the moon? Hopefully, we’ll have the courage and funds to do big things again someday.

Charles levin Author

Hoover Dam

We continued on to Las Vegas, to the Orleans Hotel. Never stayed here before. It was a fair deal and one of the lesser expensive strip hotels but the staff and service far outdid Harrahs where I stayed on previous trips. At check-in, we ordered a fridge and it was there by the time we got to the room. An enormous room with a nice sofa and king bed. Cozy for the next 6 days for sure. 

Meanwhile, I had made reservations a month in advance for the Neon Boneyard where old Las Vegas signs go to die or be reborn. Classic funky slice of LV history.

Charles Levin Author

Neon Boneyard

As I wrote this,  I was playing in two World Series of Poker Events at the RIO–results TBD…. 

Well, not much in the way of results. Beat 80% of the field in my first ‘Super-Seniors’ Poker Event but no cash. However, we had a glorious time at the Pinball Hall of Fame and the dramatic Red Rock Canyon:

Charles Lvin author

Pinball Hall of Fame

Day 15 – 21 – Berkeley, CA

A long day’s drive that seemed to go fast through the Central Valley of California where 25% of US Ag is produced.  I could taste the oranges. We arrived after dusk but got to see our kids and ever-surprising grandkids. In the days that followed, we did lots of walks and played in the parks. The kids like the kiddie swings and giggled on the slides.

Friday, our 2nd Day, we did a day with our son Josh at Stinson’s beach. The air was cool with a good wind, but the sun was hot and the beach pulchritudinous. The scent of the Pacific’s saltwater was intoxicating. Great food at the funky beach grill. The drive there and back was serpentine, and often nail-biting, over Mt Tam, but well worth it.

 That night we took the BART to the San Francisco Opera to see the fabulous Michael Fabiano perform the lead in Don Carlo. We have a personal interest in Michael since we watched him grow up and transform into one of the world’s great tenors. He was outstanding as always and we were lucky to have a few moments with him backstage after the performance. At midnight on the last train back, the BART was packed, standing-room-only. But all-in-all, another memorable day.

We did a lazy day next with the kids and celebrated our 44th Anniversary in style at an outstanding fish restaurant in Piedmont called Marica. I think I tasted cardamom.

Mile 3905. Next day it was a ride on the Tilden Steam Train with the kids followed by Josh whipping up a gourmet BBQ of fish, corn, and veggies from his backyard garden.

Charles Levin Author

Tilden Steam Train

Monday. The kids were in daycare. So we headed off for a day at SFMOMA. Having donated some Aaron Siskind and Roger Parry photos to the museum years ago, I called in a marker for a private tour given by the personable and deeply knowledgeable Adam Ryan, Asst Curator. The museum had recently opened after a 3-year renovation and seemed more expansive and inviting than MOMA in NYC. 2 floors of photo galleries with an emphasis on California was sweeping, funny, heartbreaking, and breathtaking all at once. The show also included some multi-media/photography, slideshows, and disappearing images I guess to create some ‘edge’ and to keep current with the changing art form.

After a couple of hours with Adam, we caught a great lunch – best Turkey Club I can remember, and returned to tour more of the museum. There were multiple floors of impressionism, German, and contemporary art themes. I was particularly struck by this piece done by Gerhardt Richart.

Charles Levin Author

Mesmerized at SFMOMA

Oh, and I did I mention the bathrooms? Each floor had restrooms with a differing, strong color scheme and lighting . . .

A last BBQ at the house. Josh made amazing rockfish tacos, which we enjoyed on the back patio amid his lemon, tomato, and herb plants. The next morning, it was a last aroma and taste of  ice coffee at Mojo’s, then back on the road to Tahoe.

Day 22 -23 – Lake Tahoe

After a four-hour drive across Central CA, past Sacramento, we wound our way up the pine-covered mountains. The trees were so tall and densely-packed that they totally eclipsed the bright sun.  The road leveled off at South Lake Tahoe. We were surprised and delighted by the Inn at Lake Tahoe. It overlooked the Lake and our pool. Since our stay was short, we ate lunch with our bucket-sized iced teas and headed 40 minutes North up the East side of the lake to Sand Harbor State Park on the water. We went to meet Jennifer, my sister-in-law’s daughter. It’s funny because we have seen Jenn at many a family occasion, but never really had a conversation. 

She was engaging and funny and had a very different view of my brother and sister-in-law’s relationship. Generous and thoughtful, she lugged two kayaks to the beach, chairs, and snacks to welcome us. The view of the Lake from the beach, with its clear water surrounded by the tall blue mountains, was serene. It was even more spectacular when we paddled out in the kayaks through the rounded sandstone boulders and could really take in the whole panorama alone on the water.

Charles levin Author

Paddling Lake Tahoe

 The day was sweltering for Tahoe, so swimming in the chilly water was a refreshing wake up. We brushed off the sand as the sun was setting, loaded the kayaks, and headed out to dinner.

Charles Levin Author

Sunset at Lake Tahoe

The dinner at Incline Village was another lucky Google recommendation with lots of small plates – seared scallops, sauteed spinach, roasted cauliflower parmesan, fish tacos, and gnocchi. The aromas in the restaurant were as varied as the menu.

We had a little scare after dinner. Driving back in the dark, we were 10 miles down the road, Amy, who is an insulin-dependent diabetic, had a low blood sugar and couldn’t find her insulin case. A double-emergency at the end of an endless day in a strange place. We stabilized the blood sugar and called the restaurant. Luckily they had the case and kept the place open until we returned to retrieve it. We were sorry to leave the next day but Tahoe, we’ll be back.

Day 23 – 24 – Great Basin National Park

Yes, this is actually a National Park. We drove for about 10 hours across Nevada through long arid stretches of desert cactus and the occasional cattle ranches. We saw mountains in the distance and hours later snaked our way through them. The gas stops were infrequent–it’s 100+ miles between small towns along Route 50. At 4500 miles and in the middle of Nowhere, USA, I decide it’s probably a decent idea to check the oil for the first time on our trip. The oil is full and as clean as if it’s just been changed – what a car, our 2003 Toyota 4Runner nearing 300,000 miles. The bad news is the coolant is very low and the battery terminals look like they’ve had a volcanic eruption. Will that battery make it all the way home? Podunk Gas doesn’t sell coolant, so we settle on dumping one of our water bottles into the radiator for now. I don’t understand how the car starts with a battery that ugly looking, but it does – over and over again.

We pulled into Ely, Nevada for bathroom and drinks around 6 PM – our last stop before the Great Basin. We had maybe 3/4s tank of gas so I didn’t top it off – mistake. I’m nervous about that as we leave civilization behind and pass great salt plains that seem to go on forever. I guessed we were in the Basin. Gas was down to ¼ tank and the mountains seemed far away. Finally, we found the Lehman Caves Visitor Center at Great Basin which was closed but thankfully the bathrooms were open. Camping was first-come, first-serve. So I was concerned about both finding a campsite fast and setting up before dark. A sign said there were vacancies at the top of the mountain. So we took the 20-mile scenic drive up 13,000 feet. The sun was beginning to set and the panoramic was phantasmagorical. The colors were spectacular while the shimmering desert floor far below looked like a mirage.

Charles Levin Author

Great Basin National Park

 At the top are the Bristle Cone Pines – 5000 years old, really. Unfortunately, no campsites, so we descended to even more spectacular views and got lucky to find a campsite at 6000 feet. It was definitely the most pristine glorious place we have ever camped. Things worked out. We were able to cook up a nice blackened rockfish dinner before the light faded.

The best part for me was getting up in the middle of the night to pee. At 3 am, the sky was glorious with millions of stars. The Milky Way and the planets were as bright as I ever remembered seeing them. No light pollution here so far from anywhere. I stood in awe. I loved it there. Could have spent more time for sure. Lots to explore next time. Going to these great places you’ve never heard of has been one of the many special treats on this trip. On our way out the next morning, we stopped back at the Visitor’s Center, which was now open. It was full of info and several enthusiastic rangers. Interestingly, their bookshelves had three John McPhee books – a favorite author of ours. We bought Irons in the Fire, one of the few McPhee’s I hadn’t read. It was happenstance again. Amy read to me on our drive to Utah, a McPhee story about Cattle Rustling in Ely told from the perspective of a Brand Enforcement Agent. So as we passed through that barren land, McPhee provided commentary to accompany our road trip. Amy’s reading to me reminded me of the pleasant memories of our first road trip to Montana 42 years ago. 42, really.

Dinner at the Great Basin

Day 24 – 25 – Green River, Wyoming

The ride West to California was pretty leisurely with long stopovers in Las Vegas and Berkeley. The ride going back east is more of a sprint as I want to get home by July 5th to attend Thrillerfest – the thrill writers’ conference in New York City on the 6th and 7th. So it was a few days of 10 to 14-hour drives. Somehow we’d gotten used to it. We were tired and weary at the end of each day, but hardly ever really bored since the ever-changing and impressive landscape, funky towns and ridiculous road signs and billboards (like ‘Town of XYZZX, Next Right’ -that’s how it was really spelled) were a pretty constant source of amusement. We’d also gotten to critiquing Rest Areas, Visitor Centers, and Bathrooms at length after every visit.

So luckily, there was a little Dino Gas station in the ‘town’ of Baker, Nevada, just outside the Park, to fill our near-empty tank. I say town loosely as there was nobody in sight even at the two-pump gas station. Behind the Gas Station was a stripped-down version of the Bates Motel. Luckily we found that campsite last night or you may have found us dead in the shower at the Baker Motel.

It’s about 12 hours in the car, mostly through Utah. There’s a beautiful River with rafting and fly-fishing going on, just outside Nephri, that would be fun to explore next time. Our reserved campsite for the night was at Flaming Gorge State Park, but rain and weariness led me to opt for a motel just North of the Flaming Gorge in Green River. The ride into Wyoming was spectacular when rolling hills led to massive buttes and mountains. We even caught a double-rainbow over the road.

Charles Levin Author

Double Rainbows – Green River, WY

 Reaching Green River, we had just enough energy to grab dinner at Penny’s 50s Diner and crash. Penny’s was so entertaining and cheap (½ the prices of New Jersy diners back home), that we breakfasted there the next day too before heading out for Lincoln, Nebraska.

Charles Levin Author

Penny’s Diner – Yes that is a butte outside the window!

Day 26 – 28 – Dayton, Ohio

Lincoln was a quick overnight at a comfortable Best Western. The best part for me was diving into the pool and hot tub at 11:00 PM before hitting the road early the next morning. From there it was another 15 hours to Dayton.

On the way, we found Illinois and Indiana competing for the best public rest stops: Gardens with labeled flowers, playgrounds, picnic tables with grills, and shelter. They were quite ‘welcoming.’ As the day lapsed into night on the road, we began to see many fireworks displays – some very close to the road. It was almost surreal that as we passed one, another would appear in the distance and on and on. We noticed, stopping near Indianapolis, that everyone seemed to have an old pickup with no muffler that they gunned up and down the streets. They were so numerous that you had to wonder.

Finally, around 10 PM, we arrived at our friends Dale and Mark’s lovely home. After not seeing them for 35 years, it was amazing how nice, friendly, and almost familiar it felt. We had had very little contact throughout the years, so we didn’t even know if they had kids. They did. Obviously we had a lot of catching up with us and our families. They took us to their favorite local diners, restaurants, and supermarket. We cooked dinner together, ate out, and just talked. It was a total delight. They vowed to visit and invite us to their beautiful home in Umbria, Italy. Wouldn’t that be a treat!

Finally, it was time for the last leg – a 10+ hour trip home that took us 13 hours in driving, sometimes in torrential rain. We had fingers crossed that the power would be on at home. So as I pulled up our driveway in the pouring rain and hit the garage door button, the door rose. Amy fell back in her seat with a giant sigh of relief. It was so good to finally get back from what was really ‘The Trip of a Lifetime.’

Charles Levin Author

The Trip

 . . . . June 8 to July 5, 2016

Read for FREE some of my recent short stories:
Missing the Ghost in the Palace Theater
The Gift
The Science of Regret
Nirvana Soda
Moon Landing Memories
Zombie Phone
Word Drunk

P.S. My original fast-paced thriller NOT SO DEAD and the new techno-thriller, NOT SO GONE, are now available on Amazon. Read more about it. Better yet, buy a copy?
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