Category Archives: The Big Trip

Los Angeles to Home, the last lap: 7885.8 miles

When we got to Los Angeles last night, both Michele and I felt like we were home. As different as Los Angeles is from the Bay Area, they are closer to each other than they are to anyplace else. (One thing that Michele kept remarking on is how idiosyncratic each state is and how it is noticeable almost as soon as we cross a state line.) We started the day at Foxy’s Restaurant next door to our motel in downtown Glendale – where I had a couple of eggs with hash browns just like my dad used to cook – and then jumped on The 5 to go over the San Gabriel Mountains and up the west side of The Great Central Valley. 

We cross the Los Angeles River which, even on the first day of November, has water in it and I am reminded of walking along it last spring and…
thinking the river could be a major public asset.
The traffic is light going north in the morning. Just before we start up the steep grade into the mountains, we pass the Los Angeles Aqueduct Cascades Facility that aerates the water that has been in a pipe for much its 280 mile trip from the Owns Valley. The Aqueduct, completed in 1913 mostly by hand, with 142 tunnels, transformed Los Angeles from a small desert city of about 320,000 to a mega-metropolis of over four million (it also destroyed the Owens Valley as farmland and dried up Owens Lake, turning it into a dust bowl).  
I’ve been driving over the Transverse Ranges on this highway since 1959 when it was four lanes and designated US 99 (it was widened and became I 5 in 1968). While it might not look it…
this is an amazing piece of road building that tops out at 4,233 feet (Liebre Summit).
Once we are in the Great Central Valley, it is flat and straight for almost 200 miles.

Although it seems longer.
We get gas at Petro Santa Nella…
just before going past San Luis Reservoir and then Pacheco Pass at 1368 feet.
Then we are in the upper Santa Clara Valley…
through San Jose, going against traffic…
up 280, and finally…
Home, 7,885.8 miles later.


Phoenix to Glendale CA: Mile 7484.8

From Phoenix AZ to Los Angeles CA is about a six-hour drive straight west on what used to be  Interstate 10 but has, almost universally, become The 10. We start at a tick above one thousand feet, in Phoenix, and slowly drop to about a quarter of that as we cross the Colorado River at Blythe CA,  then we will slowly climb out of the Colorado Basin and cross into the Los Angeles Basin 145 miles later, around Beaumont, at about twenty-six hundred feet. All of this on a four-lane, or larger, divided highway rolling about eighty miles an hour. If driving on back roads through Georgia is like sipping an interesting beer, this is like a double shot of rye; fast and effective. 

The first section, Phoenix AZ to Blythe CA is about a 150 miles and it goes by like we are watching it on TV (TV with trucks, that is).

After crossing the river, the country started to feel familiar to me even though this was a new highway for me. All the maps say we are still in the Sonoran Desert but it feels like the Mojave to me, at least from the highway. I’m not entirely sure how the four primary American deserts are officially differentiated but I think it is, mostly, by their flora and fauna. However, there are other, less tangible, differences that give each desert its own personality.

 The Basin and Range Desert is the northern 7/8 of Nevada and the eastern 3/8s of Utah, this is the Cowboy Desert, think Cliven Bundy. The Sonora and Chihuahuan Deserts are the Cowboys and Indians Deserts (where the Indians are more real than the Cowboys). The Mojave is the Wacko Desert, think Area 51 or the mysterious glow in Repo Man. It is the home of the Mojave Spaceport and Death Valley and is the most extreme of all the North American deserts. It is also the most trashed, think Hinkly of Erin Brokovitch fame.  The Mojave is not for everyone but it is my favorite desert and driving up out of the Colorado Basin, it is starting to feel like home.

Michele noticed that we would be passing Joshua Tree National Park and since she had never been there, she suggested we get a to-go lunch at a Mexican place in Blythe that Yelped well, and eat it at a picnic area in Joshua which is about 75 miles up the highway.

The most noticeable geological features of Joshua are the softly rounded granite boulders which were formed when the Pacific Plate pushed under the North American Plate 250 to 70 million years ago. In the mountains, on the other side of the park, there are much older rocks that were formed about 750 million years earlier when the Earth’s plates collided to form Rodinia, a supercontinent before Pangeia. The most noticeable flora are the Joshua Trees which are – theoretically – only found in the Mojave but they are at a much higher elevation than we are, here the Ocotillo, which is Sonoran, is dominant. 

After a short walk past a California Palm grove and into the low hills, we were back on the highway to Glendale where we have a Chinese dinner at one of the best Dim Sum restaurants I’ve ever been to, Lunasia Dim Sum House.  This is our last night on the road. Only one more day to go!

Show Low to Phoenix continued: Mile 7128.6

Our goal for the day had been to get to Taliesin West – Frank Lloyd Wright’s western architectural school, and, we were to learn, the mothership of the Wright cult – for the four o’clock tour, have an anniversary dinner somewhere in greater Phoenix and spend the night in the western part of Phoenix, so we could easily get to Los Angeles the next day. We made it to Taliesin with lots of time to spare thanks to Google Maps and Phoenix’s excellent highway and boulevard system. 

Phoenix has a series of highways around it which make for easy travel but keep the traveler from actually experiencing the city. This is a problem we had everywhere, when we spend only one or two nights in even a small city, there just isn’t time to get a real feeling for it.  
Once off the freeway, we were on boulevards lined with walled houses.

In 1968-69, I worked in Phoenix, part-time, as the Construction Manager on the John Gardener Tennis Ranch on Camelback but I never visited Taliesin West. Thinking about going there on this trip, I sort of wondered Why? I have been to Wright’s Imperial Hotel in Tokyo when I was there in the 60s but didn’t see the Guggenheim in New York or any Wright-designed house until later (except the Morris Shop on Maiden Lane in San Francisco, one of my favorite places). Thinking about going to Taliesin, I remembered back to those buildings as great. Now, after Taliesin, I still think they are all great but I had forgotten that they were really not very good. What I mean by that is that the buildings were great as sculpture, as showcases for Frank Lloyd Wright, but they were not very livable or, even, usable.

The Hollyhock House on Olive Hill is terrific and it is my favorite Wright house, so far, but I wouldn’t want to live in it; it just wouldn’t really be very livable without some major remodeling like opening it up to the spectacular view. The Guggenheim is another example; the expanding spiral that is the center of Wright’s design is striking from the outside – although, as I remember, there was a lot of criticism when it was built in that it didn’t fit in with the surrounding buildings, Wright’s answer was that everything else was bad architecture and he couldn’t be expected to match them – and makes a great entry inside but it is not a very good place  to show art (it is easy to get too close to a work of art and OK to see from across the way but impossible to see anything from ten steps back and the slant and curved wall don’t help). The Guggenheim is, however, a great place to see Wright’s particular genius and so is Taliesin.

On the way there, we made reservations for a tour which we picked up in the Gift Shop. The Gift Shop was one of the few shops we’ve been to on the trip that had more books than trinkets and the books were almost all on Wright. The only other architect that I can remember being represented was Louis Kahn.
There was much to admire at Taliesin but the tour guide was not one of them. The tour just didn’t click for us and I think a good part of that was the guide. 
 In 1937, Wright, with his third wife, Olgivanna, bought land in Arizona (for $3.50 an acre). He wanted to start a western version of his architectural school in Wisconsin, Taliesin Studio, as well as a winter home. He called it Taliesin West and the students would help build it. 1937 was the height – low? – of the Depression and, and despite having several major contracts during the 30s, Wright was pretty close to broke (well, broke for a guy with a house in Wisconsin and land in Arizona). At Taliesin, he had his students fill the concrete wall forms with local rocks both to save money and to showcase his use of local materials. I liked the use of rough concrete with the rocks, Michele didn’t (Wright’s students were the contractor and the workmanship was often rude and, I suspect, that better workmanship would have helped). 
Originally Taliesin was a winter encampment with stretched canvas for the ceilings/roofing. Changing the ceilings to fiberglass to accommodate air-conditioning is more practical but the design suffers for it, in my opinion.
A couple of months ago, as I remember it, Michele and Aston were discussing FLW and Aston said he didn’t think he was the greatest, that Wright didn’t compare to Le Corbusier because, among other reasons, Wright’s ceilings are too low and his rooms claustrophobic. After touring Taliesin, I think Aston is right.
The tour ended in a small auditorium – with great acoustics – where we were given a pitch to join the Taliesin Institute. I felt like I was being given a pitch to join a cult. It left me feeling a little ripped off.

We finished the day part of our day watching the sun go down from Taliesin which is when I took the picture on top. Wright was still there when the power lines were put in and he objected by calling his Congressman but he was old, the world had changed, and the power lines went in. After gassing up – at Cosco – we went to the Twisted Grove for a very good, but not particularly memorable Anniversary dinner. Then it was a short drive across town – on expressways and Interstate 10 – to a motel.  

Show Low to Phoenix: Mile 7128.6

This section of the trip was the most spectacular and held the biggest disappointment. To start with the spectacular, Show Low is at 6,345 and Phoenix is at 1,086, that is a big drop, more than 5200 feet, the biggest elevation change of any leg of the trip so we should have expected it would be spectacular but it didn’t occur to me. 

As an aside, the story behind the name, Show Low, is kinda neat. In the 1870s, some versions say 1876, there were two guys – Corydon E. Cooley and Marion Clark – that owned a ranch together in the, now Show Low, area. They started to get on each other’s nerves – I guess, although the ranch was bigger than 1,000 acres – and they agreed that two was one too many and one should leave. To decide who, they settled on a card game to pick the stayer and leaver. But neither was able to win the game so they then decided to just cut the deck of cards with the guy with the lowest card the winner. Cooley drew a two of clubs and Clark moved away. To celebrate, Cooley renamed the place Show Low. End aside. 

Back in Show Low, we had a great free breakfast – the best free breakfast of the trip, by far – and headed downhill into the heat.

Almost as soon as we started driving, we started to drop off of the Colorado Plateau.
Down, down…
into a huge canyon complex made by the Salt River.
I’m not sure what the screens on new cars are called but I’ve seen a road that looked this curvy. The real road, however, was a super drive.
Two bridges span the gorge, one new and one old; both gracefully leaping across the river.
At the bottom, we get into the deciduous tree zone.
Then we head back up, the canyon growing distant and wider.

We start to lose elevation after climbing out of the Salt River Canyon until…
we reach the old mining – first silver than copper – town of Globe which is now a tourist destination much like the Gold Rush Country of the Sierra foothills in California, I suppose.
Next door, Miami AZ, another mining town, is dwarfed by a huge copper smelter and mining tailings.
We drive through gorgeous country, slowly losing elevation. Watching the spectacular country go by, I am reminded that Arizona has some of the most spectacular landscape in the country. Reading about Arizona through stories about Joe Arpaio harassing Americans of Mexican origin, and Jan Brewer snubbing Obama, I had forgotten that.
I thought these rock formations looked like they had heads on posts.
By the time we start seeing the famous saguaro, we are almost at the bottom and then it is a straight shot to Phoenix. (BTW, the color temperature of this shot is the same as the previous shots, the color of the landscape had radically changed.)
We hurry through the outskirts of Phoenix on our way to Taliesin West.

To be continued…



Albuquerque to Show Low continued: Mile 6753.4

Driving along the Colorado Plateau at near 7,000, it is hard to see how anybody could make a living here. Yes, in the picture above, I can see a barb-wire fence which would imply that cattle are being kept off the road but we have not seen a cow in hours (if at all since Big Spring). When we enter the town of Springerville, population 1,961, I begin to pay more attention to the question, What do these people do?  There is a Safeway in town and a McDonald’s and a Post Office bigger than the one in San Mateo when I grew although, even then, San Mateo was a much bigger city (town?). It had been a while since our brunch and we were getting hungry but it is Sunday so everything is closed. We decide to go to always-open Safeway to see what they have in the deli department, but on the way, we pass the McDonald’s and I suggest we just grab a burger. It is our second trip to a McDonald’s this trip – and the second in the last twenty years, for me at least – but the burger is fine and we are on our way to Show Low.
As an aside, the Springerville question, What do these people do? wouldn’t go away so I started googling around Springerville. It turns out, Springerville is chock-a-block full of interesting things. It has the only high school football field covered with a geodesic dome – eighth largest dome in the world – it is the home of Arizona’s Madonna of the Trail statue, it has an Indian ruin, Casa Malpais, that is a National Historic Landmark, and it is only 35 miles away from a ski area that tops out at 11,200 feet. Springerville also has the oldest movie theater in Arizona ( it was originally named the Apache Theatre, but that name was changed to El Rio in 1937, eighty years and still counting before the Washington Redskins changed their racist name). My point is that this little, out-of-the-way place, seemingly boring and not even worth stopping for, isn’t boring at all and I think that goes for almost anyplace on our trip back and forth across the country. This is a complex, diverse, and fascinating country full of places worth visiting most of which we just cruised through.

As we leave Springerville, we cross over the headwaters of the Little Colorado which joins the Colorado almost in the middle of the Grand Canyon. 
Behind the picaresque old car, is part of the Springerville volcanic field, consisting of 405 discrete vents and is the third largest volcanic field in the US.
Back on the road to Show Low.
As we drop down off of the top of the plateau…
we start getting into more trees (and I’m not sure why).

In Show Low, we check into our Motel – a Days Inn but locally owned for something like 60 years – then went out to dinner at The House, which billed itself as a Yard Bar & Eatery. When we got there, they were closing down the kitchen and cleaning up, something that has happened to us more than several times on the trip. We were their only customers – in what looked like hours – and we ate on picnic tables. Michele had Sweet Corn Fritters and Pork Wings, and I had The Big Green salad with salmon. They were both served in cardboard boxes – sort of like what Whole Foods uses with their takeout bar – with plastic forks and paper napkins and it was the best salad I had on the trip. It was shockingly good; fresh, crisp, greens, with a perfectly cooked piece of salmon, and a vinaigrette that was sublime. If this were at home, we would eat here often (and we would bug them to use real plates and flatware).