Welcome to another marathon road trip! This time we are traveling almost all the way across the country in a general southwesterly direction. The main thrust of this trip is to visit areas in the Midwest we have never been to before, explore some historic sites, and, of course, stop at every kitschy road side attraction we come across. Although the majority of the time will be spent getting back to California, and we will be stopping along the way, we expect to explore the Southwest more thoroughly in a future road trip. The itinerary map above shows the general route, but we expect to veer off the interstate from time to time. Red stars on the map indicate planned overnight stops, but these are always subject to change either before we depart or during the trip.
As always, we'll keep you informed of current bookings and changes in plan as they happen. As of today, December 10, 2011, no reservations have been made.
December 14, 2011: A minor change was made to our route, substituting Bisbee, AZ, for Lordsburg, NM. Rather than just an overnight stop along the road, Bisbee has enough to offer to make it worthwhile to stay for a couple of days. An overnight stop was added in Hannibal, MO, to allow more time for sightseeing in the area.
December 27, 2011: We're introducing the twist in this adventure today. Rather than flying to Chicago, we'll be taking Amtrak's Southwest Chief from Fullerton, CA, to Chicago's Union Station. We expect it to be God-awful, but we can assure you it will at the very least give us something to talk about and, who knows, maybe it will be fun! Other details of our itinerary are now listed, but everything is still subject to revision.
January 09, 2012: Our first three hotels have been selected and posted in the blog. No reservations have been made yet and changes may be expected, but these are the best bets at the moment. We anticipate using HHonors points for the entire stay in Chicago since it is by far the most expensive city we are visiting during this trip. We were recently upgraded to Hilton Honors Diamond, so we'll see what additional amenities that gets us.
January 11, 2012: More of our top-choice hotels have been added to the list as we narrow down our final selections. No reservations have been made. An adjustment was made to the itinerary to add back in a day previously deleted from the Marceline stay. We are still wavering on whether to stay in the city itself or in a nearby town.
February 20, 2012: We've made a change toward the end of our route to accommodate a family gathering south of Tucson. All other stops remain the same. We plan to start making reservations for transportation and some hotels at the beginning of the route in a few weeks.
February 27, 2012: The reservation for our rail transport in a Superliner Bedroom to Chicago is booked. For an interactive description of Amtrak's Southwest Chief Sleeping Car (and more if you explore the site), click HERE. The total fare for this trip is $1,347.80 total, not per person. It includes meals in the dining car. We have booked a suite ($350 AAA rate) at theWit Hotel for the Chicago stay, but we decided to pay for it rather than use our Hilton points (it is a Doubletree by Hilton property.) This will earn us enough points to stay at all of the remaining Hilton-affiliated hotels for free during the rest of the trip. There is still the possibility we will switch to a nearby Kimpton hotel if the prices drop even slightly over the next month. Our Diamond Honors status with Hilton and the associated freebies tilted us in favor of the Doubletree, but it was a very close call. This will be one of a very few "fancy" rooms we'll book for the entire stay. We expect the majority of hotels/motels to be fairly basic and inexpensive (or even free with points), but we do like to toss in an upscale place now and then.
March 2, 2012: We reserved our room at the Hilton Springfield using 90,000 HHonors points to pay for it. The regular rate for a double room is $179. Our HHonors status will get us free breakfasts and internet access also. We should get a room upgrade, but we won't hold our breath for it at this property. The recent tornado in Branson, MO, has closed indefinitely both of the Hilton Hotels we had at the top of our list. We contemplated dropping Branson as a stop altogether, but the Chamber of Commerce is almost begging people to come, so we'll select another hotel and stick to our planned route.
March 5, 2012: Our rental SUV was reserved with Hertz today. Total cost for the rental and insurance is about $1,700 for a month plus two days. The daily rate is just over $30.00 per day, not including the insurance. Obviously, taxes, insurance and other fees jack up the total quite a bit from the base price of $850! We're still researching alternate hotels in Branson, but it looks like one of the Hilton's might reopen shortly.
March 9, 2012: We reserved a room at the Larian Motel ($85 per night) for our stay in Tombstone, AZ. We're staying an extra day here to attend a gathering with Bill's family nearby.
March 19, 2012: After a brief diversion from our plans, it appears at this point we are back on track. A reservation has been made for Hannibal, MO, at a different hotel than our original choice. There is a "Girl's Only" weekend going on during part of our stay, so the downtown hotels are booked up or charging ridiculous rates. We'll be staying a few minutes away at the Quality Inn & Suites for the AAA rate of $94.45 for a King Suite. Breakfast and internet is included in the rate.
March 20, 2012: We've booked our stay in Marceline at the only lodging in the town, the Uptown Theater Bed & Breakfast. The theater has held premiers of Disney films over the years and rents rooms upstairs. When we inquired about a room, the owner emailed back and basically said, just show up and you can choose whichever room you want. Rates range from $95 - $125, but she didn't confirm this. We expect it to be interesting one way or another, but certainly worth a shot. We also booked a room at the Drury Plaza Hotel at the Arch in St. Louis. A double room with an arch view is $139.49 AAA rate, which includes breakfast, internet, and evening drinks/food. Parking is $16 additional. The hotel is across the street from the Arch.
March 21, 2012: Moving right along with the reservations, we booked two nights in Roswell at the Candlewood Suites. Our original choice, the Fairfield Inn, had jacked up their prices to a ridiculous $169 per night! Our double room with a kitchen at the Candlewood Suites is $109.37, which is a special weekend rate. This is a bare bones brand, so only internet is included in the rate. There is mention of a breakfast voucher to use at a nearby Denny's. It is a newer property, so it should be nice enough. Today, we also booked two nights at the Hampton Inn in Carlsbad. We had to use our HHonors Diamond 48-hour Guarantee to get a room, so we used 30,000 points per night for this booking. The regular rates start at $169 per night, which is ridiculous for the area, and include free breakfast and internet access. We're still considering whether to change to a nearby Best Western and use the points for something else, so stay tuned.
March 22, 2012: Spurred into action by hotels mysteriously filling up overnight, we've reserved a few more stopovers. We're using 20,000 Marriott points for a two-night stay at the Courtyard by Marriott Downtown in Fort Smith, AR. The regular AAA rate for a double room there is $109, which does not include breakfast. We had to switch from Canyon to Amarillo, Texas (which was the original plan) because all hotels in Canyon are booked for Friday night. Go figure. So, we've reserved a double room at the Courtyard by Marriott Downtown at the AAA rate of $116, not including breakfast. Strangely enough, when we tried to book the Doubletree Hotel in El Paso yesterday, it was unavailable. Today, all that has changed and we booked our two-night stay using 50,000 HHonors points (regular AAA rate is $159, including free internet and parking.) We get free breakfast at all Hilton properties. And finally, we reserved a room in Oklahoma City at the Residence Inn-Downtown/Bricktown for the AAA rate of $179, including breakfast and internet. All hotels in the Bricktown area are overpriced for what they are, so that isn't a bad price.
March 23 2012: We chose Marriott's Willow Ridge Lodge for our stay in Branson. This is a timeshare property, so the "villas" are two-room suites will a full kitchen and laundry room. The AAA rate for the stay is about $149 per night (lower for Thursday night.) Internet is free. Breakfast is not provided, but there is a convenience store to buy supplies.
March 24, 2012: Our last hotel has been booked, the Hilton Garden Inn in Yuma on our final night. We used 30,000 points to pay for it (regular price is $129.) We will book the hotel for Tucson while we are on the road because we anticipate earning enough HHonors points from our stay in Chicago to pay for it.
April 15, 2012: We're good to go! A car is booked to take us to the Amtrak station in Fullerton (about 90 minutes away.) We decided not to hassle with taking the train from nearby Oceanside to Fullerton with our luggage.
Many thanks to our forum members who helped with recommendations and suggestions!
Day 1: Tuesday, April 17 - In Transit - Amtrak Southwest Chief
Amtrak Southwest Chief runs daily between Chicago and Los Angeles, through
the vast expanse of the fabled American West.
Let's get this show on the road!
We were picked up at 3:30 pm, right on schedule. Well, we would have been except the gate to our community is broken and the driver had to wait to tailgate someone in. It didn't matter, just commenting.
It took about an hour and a half to get to the Amtrak station in Fullerton. There was some traffic, but no stopping, so the drive was uneventful. The driver was pleasant and willing to chat. He even went into the station while we waited to be sure it was the right place since it wasn't clearly evident from the outside.
A group of about fifteen young people arrived and for some reason it took each of them much more time to purchase tickets than necessary. On the other hand, the Amtrak people behind the counter weren't in any big rush.
The station is nice enough, but would it kill someone to dust the chandeliers? Really, how hard can it be? They're wrought iron, not dripping with crystals. Otherwise, it is somewhat nicer than we expected.
Our only glitch was checking the luggage, one of which was slightly over the 50 lb. limit. No paying extra here, either it is under 50 lbs. or it doesn't travel. So, Dave had to pull out the guide books and some clothing and move them to Bill's carry-on to get under the limit. The clerk was about as blasé as it is possible to be, but he wasn't rude either, so we'll chalk the experience up as a neutral.
Since we arrived at the station around 5:00 pm and our train isn't scheduled to arrive until 6:50 pm, we have a lot of time to kill. It is a pleasant, warm day, so sitting out on the platform watching the MetroLink trains come in was a nice diversion. The time went by quickly. Our train didn't arrive until 7:10 pm, but it didn't make any difference to us.
We're surprised how many people come out just to watch the trains come through. It is interesting for about fifteen minutes. The woman wandering around in a black burka and black gloves was a bit out of place, but her husband was the only nice person we encountered all day and she had a cute dog with her.
When the train arrived, we wandered down the line to find our car. When our car attendant saw us coming he called out our names, took our tickets and vaguely pointed us upstairs to our room. He's pleasant enough in a pre-rehearsed sort of way, but he didn't crack a smile and looks distinctly unhappy. The stairs to the upper level are tiny and steep. People of a hefty nature probably have to turn sideways to walk down the narrow corridor.
We are in bedroom C, which is the best type of room you can get. We're not going far out on a limb to say that these rooms are about half the size of a crew cabin on an old cruise ship. There is barely enough room to turn around and no way two people can move around at the same time. However, it is clean and in good repair. There is absolutely zero storage space, except a small shelf big enough for a computer bag. No wonder they strictly limit carry-ons to two per person. That's too generous for the amount of space, but nobody said anything to us and the attendant didn't bat an eye.
Shortly after we found our room, the attendant, Victor, came to show us how everything works. The bathroom/shower combination is smaller than an airline bathroom, so we're praying to God we don't need to take a shower (and we're not even religious!) We also have to remember to close the cover on the toilet paper that is located directly under the shower head. We have no clue how anyone wider than we are (and neither of us is overly wide) can use these bathrooms. It is permissible to use the showers down the hall, which might be a bit larger.
Vincent informed us that our dinner reservation is at 8:00 pm, only half an hour away, so we just sat in the room until then. It was very rough travel at first, but it smoothed out during dinner. It wasn't any rougher than a cruise ship sailing in moderate seas. Some people might be annoyed by the constant train whistle, but it is sort of soothing in a way.
The dining car is attached to our sleeper on the upper level, so very convenient. We didn't wait for the announcement and arrived just as the attendant was calling for 8:00 pm reservations. So, we said, "Here we are," and he said, sit over there and gestured toward an empty table.
Praise be to almighty whomever, but we didn't have to share a table! There were lots of empty tables, so it seems that our strategy of choosing one of the slowest travel days (Tuesday or Wednesday) worked in our favor.
Remember, the dining car isn't busy or full, but it took a full fifteen minutes for our very disorganized, but very nice, waiter to even take our order. Click for the Menu. Once we did order, the food came very quickly, although the waiter offered it to two other tables before it finally got to us. Bill had the vegetarian special, which was a lasagna roll that was very good. Dave had the steak option that was also very good and perfectly cooked as ordered. The portions are quite large. The salads that come with the meal are just iceberg lettuce in plastic bowls, but they were OK. The large dinner rolls were good. We'd liken it all to good airline food served on paper tablecloths and with plastic disposable dinnerware. The cutlery was the only non-disposable item and it is nice with the Amtrak logo on the handle.
Our meals are included in the fare, but the menu prices are reasonable. Between $15 and $25. We didn't have dessert since the waiter had forgotten to ask everyone if they wanted anything else. Our waiter came by the table after we were finished eating to ask if we had received our food yet. Yes, he is the same guy who served us the entire time, cleared the plates, etc.
Eventually a brusque supervisor (we assume) came by and asked Bill to pay for his glass of wine ($6.00). She also asked if we want dessert. Tonight they had tiramisu, cheesecake and a chocolate/vanilla pudding. The food was better than expected, but the service was abysmal, truly appalling. All we can say for it is that nobody was rude.
Vincent arrived in the dining room for his meal as we were leaving and he reminded us that breakfast is from 6:30 - 9:00 am. Since we gain an hour overnight, the chances of us making it to breakfast are slim and none, but stranger things have happened.
Back at the room, Vincent had transformed it into sleep mode, which pretty much means you have to turn sideways to get through the door. We had to put the upper berth back up in order to use the sink, which is essentially out in the corridor if you forget to close the curtain on the glass sliding door. We didn't attempt to shower tonight.
View a copy of the Southwest Chief Route Guide by clicking HERE. Announcements were made several times that it isn't allowed to consume alcohol brought from home. They threatened several times to put offenders off at the next station, then announced that it is not OK to have someone else buy alcohol for you. They said they'd toss that person off the train also. We're assuming something untoward is going down in coach, but we didn't venture to that part of the train. Announcements stop at 10:00 pm, but the conductor said that if you are sitting in your assigned seat, they'll wake you up at your stop.
We arrived in Victorville about 9:45 pm. After that we have no clue what went on.
Day 2: Wednesday, April 18 - In Transit - Amtrak Southwest Chief
If you can imagine trying to sleep on a park bench while it is dragged across a rocky field behind a horse, you know what our overnight experience was like. OK, so it wasn't dusty or hot, but otherwise it was the same. On the plus side, it didn't smell, most of the time. The upper bunk is quite an ordeal to get into, but once you're securely tucked in it is OK, but with almost no padding at all. Overall, it is tolerable and slightly better than we expected. The rough ride is a total surprise though. The only time it isn't bumpy is when the train is in a station.
That said, we were up and ready for breakfast by 7:30 am, which is really 6:30 am due to the time change overnight. Even though Arizona doesn't have Daylight Saving Time, Amtrak switches to central time for their convenience (which is the same reason they do everything the way they do).
We arrived in the dining car and were seated with a nice woman from our local area. She ordered a take-out meal for her husband that ended up sitting on the table behind us for the entire time. The waiter offered to call her room attendant to deliver it, but didn't bother telling her until an hour later that the attendant was on break. Welcome to Amtrak.
A few minutes later a single gentleman joined us. The conversation was pleasant and even though we're not usually into the sharing tables thing, it was fine. Based on what we have seen passenger wise, we feel we got lucky with our tablemates.
The same menu is used for all meals. We both ordered the French toast, which was outstanding. Since Dave can't have syrup anymore, he ate it plain and it was still delicious. The menu says sugar free syrup is available, but he didn't ask for it. When the woman at our table asked for the advertised egg substitute she was told they don't have it.
Our tablemate said her room periodically smells like sewage, something we had read about and dreaded. Our room only smells bad when odors from outside waft through, it doesn't originate from inside the car. We consider ourselves lucky. She also told us that in order to use the showers (she is in a roomette) you have to feed it quarters the entire time. There is no mention of that in anything we read. The Amtrak site just says showers are available, not that there is a charge for them.
We sat in the dining car chatting about various travels, then wandered to the next car to look at the lounge car. It looked OK, but our room is more comfortable, so that's where we ended up. There has been no mention of how lunch works, so we're going to assume that an announcement will be made at some point. The room was configured back to daytime mode while we were at breakfast.
Speaking of announcements, this one was made shortly after we returned to our room. Here it is word for word as it was announced: "For those of you in coach using the public restrooms, if you don't know how to operate the flush, please ask an attendant to show you how to push the button marked 'FLUSH'."
Other than the rough ride, the accommodations are nice. Apparently we are in one of the newer cars because we have the fancy wood trimmed panels. Or so we're told by our traveling companions from breakfast. The car we're in is in very good condition, much better than we expected.
We passed through Gallup, NM, around 8:45 am to give you a reference for where we are at the moment. The scenery is dry, rocky desert with occasional ancient lava flows. Now and then there is a dilapidated settlement of what must be hearty souls. So far this morning there have been no stops. We are supposed to stop in Albuquerque around noon.
An announcement was made that lunch today is open seating between noon and 2:00 pm.
We arrived in Albuquerque around 11:30 am for a service stop. Departure was on time at 12:10 pm. We wandered along the platform to the vendors' tables, but didn't buy anything. The prices were very cheap if you are into that kind of stuff (blankets and turquoise jewelry mostly.) A major drag of station stops is that all of the smokers get off and everyone else has to wade through the clouds of smoke. We don't have any more lengthy stops, so this was probably our only step off the train until we arrive at our destination.
We went to the dining car for lunch at 1:30 pm when they made a "last call" announcement (half an hour before closing time.) Two singles were seated with us, a young man with multiple piercings who was pleasant, and an older man who was very knowledgeable about train travel. Neither were overly chatty, which is fine with us, but both of them were very nice.
Bill had the combo lunch, which is a bowl of chicken tortilla soup and a small salad, both of which were good. The young man had a pepperoni pizza he said looked better than it tasted because the crust was too dry. Dave had the sandwich special, a turkey and jack cheese sandwich, which was also OK. A man at a nearby table was relating his horrendous dining experience from last night.
After lunch we returned to our room and decided we couldn't stay awake any longer. The ride isn't as rough today and we know the extremely rough section of tracks is upcoming through Kansas, so we napped for a few hours. Most of the ride today is through desert scenery.
We arrived in Trinidad, CO at 6:00 pm, and it looks like a cute little town with a big mesa-mountain behind it. La Junta is another service stop around 7:00 pm. Both towns would be a good destination for another road trip starting point, but we'll have to research the area first. It is difficult to work out train arrival times with reasonable hours for renting cars and checking into hotels, but both of these towns work out for that purpose, assuming they have accommodations.
We made 7:30 pm dinner reservations at lunch when the Gestapo supervisor went around demanding everyone make their choice.
An announcement was made in the late afternoon that because people haven't cooperated about flushing the toilets and keeping the trash off the floor, they are closing the lounge restroom for the duration of the trip. Later in the day, more announcements were made that there is a zero tolerance policy for anyone sleeping in the lounge car, smoking, or leaving food and trash at their seats. There are constant threats that the conductor will toss you off at the next station if you don't behave properly. Numerous warnings have been made about loud cell phone talking, running up and down the hallways, and other behaviors of a white trash nature. Since they keep making the announcements, it would appear that they are not throwing anyone off the train. We haven't witnessed any uncivilized behavior at all.
Nothing happened of interest until dinner time at 7:30 pm. We didn't hear an announcement, but went anyway where the huffy supervisor waited on us and a man with his elderly mother. They were both amusing. The same man who was complaining the afternoon is still doing it tonight at the table across the aisle.
Everyone at the table ordered the steak after the server said the pasta wasn't very good. It was very good again. Bill ordered rice rather than a baked potato, but got the potato anyway. When the server realized the error, she said she'd bring him some rice. Then it dawned on her they were almost out of potatoes, so she came back, stuck a knife in it and took it away to serve to someone else. Although it is common sense not to do that, it is also against health codes to re-serve anything that has been placed in front of another guest. Not that this is any big surprise around here, just pointing it out for our own entertainment.
Our dining companions were amused by the ridiculous service, too, so the conversation was fun. None of us care, it is just amazing that these people don't realize how much more pleasant their job would be if they were nicer to the customers.
On the way out of the dining car, Vincent told us to move our watches ahead an hour for tomorrow.
Tonight is the very rough section of tracks across Kansas, so we're not expecting a good night's rest. We'll probably kiss the hotel on the lips when we get there!
Day 3: Thursday, April 19 - Arrive in Chicago, IL - thewit Hotel
With attractions and activities galore,
is everyone's kind of town. See all the famous sights, then catch a show in the
theater district or a Cubs game at historic Wrigley Field, followed by a late
night visit to a blues club or jazz bar. Culture hounds will delight in the
multitude of museums, including the prestigious Art Institute and the Chicago
Historical Society. Families will find plenty to do at Navy Pier and to explore
at the Field Museum and the Lincoln Park Zoo. You could spend all day strolling
through Hyde Park or shopping along the Magnificent Mile. Discover vibrant
ethnic neighborhoods, architectural landmarks, delicious restaurants and
world-class hotels. From the top of the Willis (formerly Sears) Tower to the
shores of Lake Michigan, Chicago offers so much to do, visitors keep coming back
It was indeed very rough after 1:00 am when they strapped a jackhammer onto the leg of our park bench. However, it didn't last more than a couple of hours and wasn't all that much worse than the night before. Still, sleeping through the night isn't an option on this train. It does make it easier to get up in time for breakfast since you're never asleep for any length of time.
The train arrived in Kansas City, MO at 7:00 am and allowed a smoke break, but "Please do not leave the side of the train!"
Bill braved the shower and said it was like camping, but it worked. He only had to push the button for water twice. Even with the cover closed, the toilet paper got partially wet and wasn't replaced by the attendant when he made up the room. Whatever room we get at the hotel will be palatial compared to this.
We were seated with an elderly couple for breakfast, again solely for the convenience of the serving staff. The dining car was half empty. They were nice, nothing to complain about. The food was again fine. That is assuming you're willing to eat whatever they serve you since what you order isn't taken into consideration. Supposedly they ran out of bacon after we were served because they brought everyone sausage instead. We're willing to bet that's what the waiter ordered by mistake.
The supervisor announced that because we are arriving in Chicago around 3:00 pm (well after lunch would have ended, by the way), that they will be serving lunch from 11:00 am - noon only and it is first-come, first-served. Again, the staff probably wants a rest, so they can't be bothered serving their customers. Shortly after the announcement, another was made changing the start time to 11:30 am (still ending at noon) for an "abbreviated lunch."
An announcement was made that we will probably arrive in Chicago a bit early. It was cloudy in Kansas City, but shortly after we left it was clear skies again. We're expecting rain in Chicago tonight and tomorrow, so anything better than that will be a nice surprise.
Cruising along through Missouri is picturesque. Little farms and cute towns along the way. Lots of Auntie Em houses, too. After Kansas City we stopped very briefly at a couple of small towns just long enough to kick someone to the curb and start rolling again.
Needless to say, the cafe car closed at noon for a 45 minute break right after the announcement that the dining car was done with its 45 seconds of lunch service.
The final two hours was tedious, but not intolerable. At least there is more to look at the closer one gets to Chicago. The train arrived in Chicago about ten minutes early. Vincent had already taken our larger bag down for us, so we'll give him some props for making an effort to be helpful. He's the only one!
So, let's reflect on the train portion of this trip. Let's just say that everything beyond this should be an improvement! Would we do it again? Sure, it isn't that bad, and it does give us something to talk about. It really is appalling how poorly managed Amtrak is. It wouldn't take much effort to improve the service. OK, so maybe it doesn't keep people from riding, but if the service was even average it might attract a few more riders. We've both been in service businesses forever, travelled all over the world, including the Soviet Union in the 1970's, and this is far and away the worst service we've ever experienced. It extends from the ticket counter to the train with a robotic approach lacking a single smile. Train travel isn't cheap, so that's no excuse.
Other than the service, the Bedroom is OK, not comfortable particularly, even for sitting, but not unbearable either. Everyone we talked to who was in the Roomette said they would book the Bedroom next time. Do not under any circumstances consider doing this route in coach! Disregard our advice at your own peril. Save your pennies and book a sleeping car room, a Bedroom if you can. Even if you can't sleep, you'll be away from the riff raff. The best way to describe what goes on there is that it is like spending two days at the DMV. The sleeping car attendants are the only staff members who are reasonably personable, although we wouldn't call any of them friendly particularly. On the plus side, they do what they are asked to do, the rooms and cars are clean and neat, and they aren't at all rude or pushy. They probably flip you off behind your back, but at least they are discrete about their disdain for the passengers.
The Dining Car food was pretty good. Nothing was inedible. Stick with what other passengers recommend (the steak.) Don't expect to get what you ordered and definitely don't bother yourself with a special request. We didn't make any, but others did and they were ignored. The food is equivalent to good airline food. Fine for what it is and prepared properly. We've had far worse meals in restaurants, so the food component here is fine. The food service, however, is so bad it is funny even at the time. There must be no consequences at all for bad service. That kind of thing comes from the top, which leads us to believe the entire company doesn't give a rat's ass about the customers. Why are these people in a service business if they don't want to serve their guests? Closing the Cafe Car for lunch and dinner breaks during the rush hour speaks for itself regarding who the staff is trying to please.
As we already said, we'd use the train again. It is the best way to get to a distant starting point for a road trip with all of the accoutrements required for such things. Flying to a destination and then driving for a month doesn't work for us. Trying to work out the stops to arrive at a decent hour for checking into hotels and renting a car is another story when you're working a train schedule. Again, the whole thing is arranged to suit Amtrak, not their customers.
As we disembarked, we handed Vincent a tip that seemed to please him.
It took about ten minutes for our luggage to show up at Baggage Claim, but since it did show up, we're happy. We wandered outside to get a taxi. It was no problem getting a taxi and the driver was nice and helpful, pointing out sights along the way (Daley Plaza and its Picasso sculpture, for example.) It is overcast today, but no rain yet. It cost $7.00 from the station to the hotel, plus tip.
We knew we had arrived at the right place when the sidewalk in front of the hotel was covered with construction fences. This hotel is trying way too hard to be trendy with loud music blasting outside the front door. Inside though, the service is very attentive. A bellman took our luggage the moment we stepped inside. Another guy took us to the front desk about ten feet away.
The front desk clerk acknowledged our Diamond status and told us we get free breakfast, then neglected to give us the vouchers. An extremely friendly bellman took us up to our room on the 21st floor. We booked, and received, a King Suite, but we were upgraded to a corner room with a river view. You have to insert your room key to access your floor in the elevator; otherwise you can only go to the Roof bar. The taxi driver told us it is a happening place, but we told him we don't think we're trendy enough, which amused him.
When Dave asked the bellman about internet access and told him that we should be getting it free, he said he would go down to the desk and come back with the password. He also offered to get the missing breakfast vouchers, which he did very quickly. He went to retrieve an extra luggage rack for us, gave us a map and offered up information on nearby clubs. Can he not see us??? Anyway, he was nice and trying to be helpful.
In a few minutes there was a delivery of a Diamond Welcome Amenity consisting of two cookie bars, two bottles of water and three strawberries, completely unexpected. The guy who delivered it was in and out so quickly it was obvious he didn't expect a tip. He didn't stop long enough to give him one.
The suite is huge! The living room has a full-sized sofa, arm chair, dining table for four, and a big LCD HD TV with all sort of high-tech connections on the console. There is a kitchenette with a microwave, refrigerator and utensils. These units look like time share units, but as far as we know they are not.
The bedroom has an alluring chaise lounge by the wall-to-wall windows overlooking the river and Wacker Dr. We can't see or hear the El or any other traffic noises. The furniture is trendy, but looks like every other supposedly trendy hotel (and cruise line) these days. There are a bunch of techie gadgets at the desk. An enormous bathroom contains a huge corner soaking tub, glassed-in shower, weird flat sink, and the usual nice Doubletree amenities.
The room is showing some wear, but it is clean and in generally good shape. The trendy colors and design elements probably won't hold up well over time, but they are fine for now. There is a very odd red felt sculpture over the bed that looks like an enormous dust-catcher (among other things we are too polite to mention) to us.
Bill got trapped in the bathroom when the huge, very heavy sliding door fell off the track. It took the two of us working at the same time to open it. We'll report it when we go down for dinner.
We're wiped out from two nights of little sleep and missing lunch today. So, the plan is to go downstairs to State & Lake restaurant for dinner, then crash early. And, that's exactly what we did after telling the front desk about the broken door.
The first thing we both said when we sat down is, "This is unpleasant." The bar, which is basically the entire restaurant, was packed and extremely noisy. The waitress had to shout to be heard, although she was very nice. Once we got used to the decibel level it was tolerable, but we're really feeling old about now.
There is a new dinner and dessert menu that started tonight, so we've updated them on our site. We both ordered the Pork Chop, a small mixed greens salad and a small Caesar salad. Both of the salads were good, but the Caesar was outstanding. Both salad portions were very large. The pork chops were huge, at least two inches thick. We still can't get used to being asked how we want pork cooked. Call us old fashioned, but we're still convinced we're going to get trichinosis from undercooked pork. We took our chances and ordered it medium. The meat came with wilted spinach greens and a rectangle of gratin potatoes in a red-hot black iron mini-skillet. The pork was outstanding and perfectly cooked. The potatoes were unusual, but not worth writing home about. Nothing amazing about the spinach either, but it is good.
The waitress recommended the "donut" dessert, so Bill ordered it and Dave sampled it. It was both inventive and very tasty, so a win all the way around. Our total bill came to $100.32 before tip, including one alcoholic beverage. We'd order everything we had tonight again if we return here, which is unlikely due to the noise factor.
On the way out we noticed a guy perched above the lobby on a glass balcony over the front entrance playing acoustic guitar...loudly. Stuff like that must drive the front desk clerks nuts while they're trying to interact with guests. The lobby is quite small as it is, especially with the Concierge desk sticking out right in front of the main doorway and corridor to the elevators.
Someone with a sense of practicality should oversee what interior designers are putting in public places. The restaurant and bar have large glass columns backed with brass panels that hold fake flickering candles. The candle part is OK except some have melted into contorted shapes. They'll fit right in here, for sure. Beyond that, the glass in the columns is full of fingerprints from, we presume, climbing up to turn on the multitude of candles. Plus, the brass has already started to tarnish and there is no way to clean it without disassembling the entire thing. It was a good idea, just poorly executed. Yeah, we know, we're the only people in the world who would notice that. Let's be fair, DAVE is the only person in the world who would notice that.
Oh yeah, forgot to mention that there are nature sounds playing in the hallways instead of music. At night it is crickets and owls. During the day it is roosters crowing and birds singing. At least it isn't loud.
We know we're at a Doubletree because when we ordered a box of Kleenex we got two washcloths instead. The guy did go get the right item very quickly. Our bathroom door was fixed while we were at dinner, so we'll call it a draw.
We were back in the room by 8:00 pm where we stayed for the rest of the evening. As long as the shower works, and the bed doesn't vibrate, we're ahead of the game. The only city noises we can hear from outside are sirens and occasional traffic noise, certainly nothing to complain about. We're on the 21st floor, by the way.
Day 4: Friday, April 20 - Chicago, IL - theWit Hotel
We were up at 8:00 am after a nice long sleep in a very comfortable bed. It is more like a nest than a bed. Score one for theWit! Here is a night view from our bedroom window. There are the usual muffled city noises...sirens and traffic...but it isn't disturbing. The only indication that the El is next to the hotel is a slight whooshing sound as it passes, no screeching or anything like that.
The scene in State & Lake this morning is quite the opposite of last night...empty. We've decided that "edgy" means sticking whatever weird "art" you can find all over the place, and playing salsa music and nature sounds. Check out the 3D-appearing velvet painting of the deer in this photo inside the restaurant.
We have $20 per person vouchers for breakfast which is a good thing because it is very pricey. We did order the most expensive things on the menu, plus fruit, but $76 for breakfast is kind of steep. We ended up owing $26 of that. Luckily the food was outstanding and large portions. A normal person would easily be able to fill up on the $20 allowance without spending extra. The vouchers cover the tip, too. Click to view the Menu. Bill ordered the fruit plate and the corned beef hash. Dave had the seasonal berries and the short rib omelet. Everything was outstanding. Service was prompt and friendly, but we were asked three times for our drink order by various different people. Not a big deal, but it shows a lack of training.
After breakfast we stepped outside to check the weather. It is rainy and cold. It isn't pouring rain, just sort of misting, and it isn't freezing or terribly windy. So, we're planning to walk the few blocks to the Art Institute and then we'll decide where to go when we're done there based on how the weather is looking later today. We can see the park and lake from the elevator lobby on our floor. It is supposed to be nice over the weekend, so we'll probably put off our walk to Navy Pier and around the Loop area until then. We didn't make any concrete plans, so whatever we do is fine. It is difficult to determine how walkable a place is until we're actually there, but now that we've seen the city we're sure we can cover it easily on foot.
Our room was made up while we were at breakfast. Quite speedy, aren't they?
We set out on foot from the hotel around 11:00 am to explore the immediate vicinity and Grant Park. We expect it to rain today, so we're mostly winging it to see how the day goes. The State St. station of the El is immediately adjacent to the hotel, but we have no need for it today.
Across the street in the next block is the iconic Chicago Theater, now used for concerts and such. On the next corner is the famous Marshall Field Building with its bronze clock at the corner. It is now Macy's, but the Marshall Field bronze plaques remain. State St. is lined with an interesting installation called "LightScape" that consists of color-changing LED lights synchronized to music. The banners say something about it having a baseball theme, but the two songs we heard didn't relate to that subject much, if at all.
We turned left on Madison Ave. and crossed Wabash Ave, the location of Jewellers' Row. After crossing Michigan Ave. we arrived at Millennium Park, the location of multiple famous sites.
First, we encountered the whimsical Crown Fountain. Two towering cubes face one another across a shallow pond (shallow enough to walk across.) The inner faces of the columns sport LED screens showing faces of local Chicagoans. Water cascades from the top. When one of the faces puckers its lips, water spurts as if it is spitting. The pictures are live action, not photos.
Next we wandered over to the famous "Cloud Gate" sculpture, more commonly referred to as "The Bean". This is a polished stainless steel sculpture in the shape of a giant jelly bean. The cityscape is reflected in the surface as well as anything else nearby. It is a great place for a self-portrait. While we were aware of the usual reflective views, looking up inside the sculpture was a surprise as the concave center portion reflects all of the people milling around below for an interesting effect. It is much more impressive in person than it appears in photos.
Adjacent to The Bean is the futuristic Prizker Pavilion, the scene of free concerts during the summer months. We walked around the pavilion to the BP Bridge over Lake Columbus Dr. to look at the view. The bridge is a sinuous stainless steel structure over the roadway.
We turned back toward the Art Institute of Chicago, passing though the Lurie Garden on the way. There are beautiful tulips blooming in the garden beds and all over the park and city medians. We wandered up a bouncy bridge to the new wing of the Art Institute. We got lost looking for the Sculpture Courtyard, but found it quickly enough. It is showing the most ridiculous excuse for art we've ever seen. Anyone can spray paint Styrofoam shapes and toss them around a courtyard. They're lucky viewing this is free.
Admission to the Art Institute is $18 per person and well worth it if you are into museums. We are not, but paid it anyway because it started to rain. Every staff member we encountered at the museum was extremely pleasant and eager to help. We were looking at a directory at one point and a security guard came over and asked if we were looking for something in particular. There are lots of options for food and snacks scattered about the enormous (and very confusing) buildings.
Although we have a guide of the "must sees", we just wandered around. We found several of the famous paintings even we recognized. However, we only knew we were in the right place when Monet's famous 'Water Lilies' painting was missing and represented by a photocopy. We're more interested in looking at objects than paintings, so we spent a bit more time in the Japanese and Asian Art sections. We even found the miniature room models housed in the basement.
The Michigan Ave. entrance presented itself at this point, so we bolted for the door. It was way too warm in the museum, so we couldn't get out of there fast enough. We have now confirmed without a doubt that we don't "do" museums, although if you have to do one, this is probably it. Two famous bronze lions grace the Michigan Ave. entrance.
We continued walking along Michigan Ave., passing through the Art Institute Garden. This section of Michigan Ave. fronts the venerable Grant Park. Elaborate buildings, old and new, create a stately facade along the avenue.
Shortly, we arrived at the grand entrance to Grant Park. Up the steps is the enormous Buckingham Fountain that is supposed to spurt on the hour. Since we are here, it isn't working. We waited around "just in case", but no luck. The views from here are spectacular, but on a blustery day, very cold and windy, too.
We continued walking through the park to the Tiffany Garden and turned right toward The Loop after that. We decided to wander through the streets of the Loop, vaguely working our way back toward our hotel at the north-east corner. This area is jam packed with iconic structures old and new. Gigantic gargoyles peer down from the Central Library building.
Eventually, we ended up at Daley Plaza with its once-controversial Picasso sculpture. It fronts a Federal Courthouse (or something like that), so the building is fortified with granite blockades to prevent car bomb attacks. A nearby building with another government function is surrounded by less obvious fortifications. There were Homeland Security vans all over the place that we learned later are practicing for an upcoming summit in the city. We detoured into a McDonalds for a snack break, not wanting to stop for too long.
Revived, we walked through the Theater District, the Cadillac Palace Theater and several other interesting structures. We continued north to Wacker Dr. and walked along the river back toward our hotel at State and Lake. At this point, it was very windy and cold, so we decided to call it good for today and went back to our hotel at 5:00 pm. The front desk clerk who was there when we arrived, but did not serve us, said "hello" as we walked by. The staff here is extraordinarily welcoming. How well trained some of them are is up for discussion, but they certainly do try to be nice.
Our overall impression of Chicago from our experiences today is overwhelmingly positive. It is a beautiful city, no doubt about it. And, unlike some other big cities, the citizens are friendly and don't actively avoid eye contact on the sidewalk. There were very few panhandlers out and about, but that might have more to do with the weather than anything else. However, the ones we did encounter weren't at all pushy or persistent. The streets are mostly beautifully maintained with lovely planters full of huge tulips, sculptures, etc. We didn't see graffiti or trash anywhere and felt very safe as we walked around.
We confirmed our reservation for our stay in Marceline as the B&B owner instructed us to do. She answered back within minutes that she's eagerly awaiting our arrival.
Right before we left to find some dinner, around 7:00 pm, party central checked in next door, jumping on the beds, screaming, blasting music, etc. So, on the way out, Dave informed the front desk guy that if it was still noisy when we came back, they'd have to move us. He was very nice about it and acted like he fully expects the new arrivals to be a problem. OK, so then why do we have to move and the miscreants get to stay put? Don't answer that, we know it is always the well behaved guest who has to pay the price.
We walked a couple blocks to Pizano's Pizza to check one of the foods we are supposed to try off our list. It was crowded, but we only had to wait about five minutes and everyone was very nice and helpful. The food was fine, nothing spectacular, but good. Click to link to their Menu. We had a small Mark's Special deep dish pizza, toasted ravioli combo appetizer and salads.
We got our entertainment for the night from the table next to us. The woman there was haranguing her fiancé about certain guests to their upcoming wedding. It involved inviting a problem person in his family he could care less was there or not. She, on the other hand, insisted he care about it. Remember, it is his family member, not hers. He pretty much stonewalled her until he'd had enough and said, "Well, let's just cancel the whole thing then." Suddenly she forgot she had even brought it up. Sounds like this is a marriage that will last.
Back at the hotel at 9:30 pm, we found the lobby transformed into a club complete with velvet ropes and bouncers. We were asked if we are hotel guests and he took our word for it, so no harm, no foul. There was a line at the elevator to the bar on the top floor, plus a hostess at another lobby entrance to screen arrivals and put them in a waiting area. None of this impacted us at all and it is amusing to see all the posturing. We wouldn't have participated in anything like this even "way back when."
The guy at the desk Dave spoke to earlier about the noisy neighbors asked us to go up and check if it is still noisy and come back if it is. We did, and it was quiet, so Dave went back down and asked how long they are staying. When told it is only for tonight, he said fine, we'd put up with it, but only for one night. We're assuming they'll come back drunk after the bar closes, but by that time we'll be in our bedroom with the door shut and shouldn't hear them. Dave was asked if we like our room, so the assumption is that they prepared to move us. Whether it would be an upgrade or not we can only guess. We were told that the offending guests signed a "No Party" agreement, so if they get loud again we can complain and they'll throw them out. Yeah, right, but it sounds good. This hotel is obviously party central on the weekends, so they are encouraging this kind of clientele.
There was turn-down service tonight while we were out. They replaced towels, turned the radio to soothing music, and left a card with a saying about being flexible along with a rubbery strip that bends into different shapes. Gimmicky, but memorable.
Day 5: Saturday, April 21 - Chicago, IL - theWit Hotel
Today's weather is beautiful, clear and mostly sunny. It is still cold, but not unbearably so. We prefer cooler temperatures for walking around anyway, so for us this works out just fine.
We were up early again and went down for breakfast, as usual. Again, we went $26 over our $40 HHonors vouchers, but we do eat a lot in the morning. Even so, the breakfast prices are very high compared to the relative good value for dinner. We ordered the Sausage and Egg Casserole and the Banana French Toast (plus fruit and berries) and everything was outstanding. The portions are huge. Service everywhere at the hotel is attentive and friendly.
Construction noises from above us somewhere started at 9:30 am. It sounded like either jack hammering or maybe sanding floors, but either way it was very loud. We left the hotel by 10:00 am, so it didn't bother us too much, but if we had stayed at the hotel today it would have been unacceptable. And, why are they doing this on a busy weekend? So far, we have no party animals next door though.
Today's plan is to walk from the hotel north of the river. We walked the block up to the river and turned toward Michigan Ave. The river area is very scenic with magnificent new and old buildings. Trump Tower looks almost fake it is so stunning as it reflects the city around it. None of the shops below it along the Riverwalk are occupied though and look like they never were.
There is a small Vietnam Memorial by the river, various statues, fountains, ornate bridges and such everywhere you look. Approaching the Michigan Ave. bridge the striking architecture of the Wrigley Building and others comes into view. Crossing the bridge reveals more breathtaking river views.
We turned north on Michigan Ave., or the Magnificent Mile as it is also known, following the tourists and shoppers along the street. This area is particularly beautiful with stunning displays of tulips in the planters. Individual stores also have floral displays in their planters, plus the center median is beautifully planted. If there is a more beautiful big city shopping street anywhere else, we sure haven't seen it.
While the shops along the avenue are upscale, they aren't anything one can't find everywhere else. What can't be recreated is the overall atmosphere presented here. It isn't snooty like Rodeo Drive or Beverly Hills and is a mix of locals and tourists. It is very pleasant. While it is crowded, it isn't uncomfortably so.
We continued north, marveling at the architecture and other lovely scenes, until we reached the Water Tower. This and the Waterworks across the street are the only structures that survived the Chicago fire downtown. Now they house a visitor center and an art gallery.
Just north of the Waterworks shopping center is the iconic John Hancock Center. Since we are right here anyway, we went down to the entrance to the Observatory to see if the line is too long. It wasn't, only about fifteen minutes, so we paid our admission ($15.00 for each General Admission), stopped at the photo op, then entered the switchback line. It wasn't a long wait at all, maybe fifteen minutes, so we didn't mind. The woman admitting people to the elevator area was very friendly and welcoming.
There is a silly narration during the 40-second ride to the 94th floor, but that's to be expected at a tourist attraction. It could have been a lot worse, that's for sure. It points out that this is the fastest elevator in North American, among other things.
As the doors opened to the observation floor, there was a live chamber orchestra playing dramatic music fitting of the big reveal of amazing views in all directions. The weather is clear today and the view couldn't possibly be any more dramatic. To the east is Navy Pier where we will head next. To the north is the famed Gold Coast. All around to the south and east are magnificent city views and suburbs beyond. Looking straight down we could see the Water Tower area we had just visited.
We bought a couple of souvenirs from a chatty clerk, and then got in the long line for the elevator back down. They have a clever mock-up where people can pose as window washers for a photo op, which is free. The photo package taken at the entrance is $25 for a wide selection of prints. There is no pressure to buy the photos and the clerks are pleasant.
The line for the ride down was much longer than getting up, but it wasn't unbearable. Back on the street we started off south along Michigan Ave., headed in the general direction of Navy Pier. We turned left on Illinois toward the lake. The Tribune Tower building here sports embedded remnants from old and new buildings and locations around the world. A piece of the World Trade Center was added recently.
The walk to Navy Pier is longer than we anticipated, but eventually we made it after walking past several newly constructed condominium towers. We felt sorry for the sales agent in one of the offices who looked about as bored as it is possible to look. Prices start at $249,900 that seemed reasonable considering the location. Of course, that's probably for a tiny studio on a lower floor, but it still seems fair for a big city like this.
Being such a beautiful day, it seemed as though everyone was at the pier today. This is an old facility that has been repurposed as a tourist attraction. There is a large Children's Museum at the front in an ornate stone building. One side of the pier's walkway is lined with restaurants, shops, tourist boats, and various rides and attractions. It looks crowded in the photo, but it wasn't unpleasant and there weren't lines for anything that we saw.
The buildings in the center of the pier house a Shakespeare Theater, IMAX, and loads of convention and exhibition space. Approximately halfway down the length of the pier there are a few rides, the largest of which is a giant Ferris Wheel. Since it is such a nice day, we paid our $6.00pp admission and took a ride. There was no wait. This attraction has a photo op at the entrance also, but we didn't care enough to buy it ($20 for the package.) There is a spectacular view of the skyline from the top of the wheel.
At the end of the pier is an original building used for various things in the past. It is exhibition space now. We took in the view from the end of the pier, and then wandered back toward the city. We contemplated having some lunch here, but everything was crowded and nothing called out to us. We also considered taking a boat tour, but decided to pass for today. There are a lot of choices for tours if one is so inclined. The prices are reasonable, around $16.00.
Our feet were about to fall off at this point, but we pressed on toward The Loop and our hotel. We walked along the pedestrian pathway under the roadway crossing the river, then around an empty marina and through Millennium Park to Michigan Ave. Lots of people are out walking, jogging and biking today.
We vaguely looked for someplace to eat and ended up at Pizano's Pizza where we had dinner last night. We were seated at the same table we had last night, but minus the drama of the bickering couple. Dave had an Italian Beef sandwich, so that's another "must eat" item crossed off the list. It was great and he'd order it again. Bill had a meatball sandwich that also was excellent. We both substituted a house salad for fries. It was enormous and very tasty. The total bill for all of this was only $25.00 before tip.
Back out on the street, we walked up a block and turned north on Wabash Ave., or Jewelers' Row. If you need diamonds, this is the place to find every possible incarnation of that and every other gemstone.
We passed through the Theater District and checked out the neon sign in front of the Oriental Theater. We love old neon!
This brought us back to the hotel at around 4:30 pm, just in time for our feet to give out. The drilling, hammering, whatever, was still going on, so we assume it was continuous all day. We would never put up with that if we had stayed in today. It was unbearable for any length of time. Luckily it stopped at 5:00 pm.
We made a reservation through Open Table at South Water Kitchen for 7:30 pm tonight. It is part of the Hotel Monaco which was our second choice of lodging. If the price had been lower we would have selected in for sure. Knowing what we know now about theWit, we would have been happier there, even though this hotel is very nice. There are too many little annoyances here and running the gauntlet of club goers in the lobby is a drag.
Neither of us could stay awake, so we napped off and on, hoping we wouldn't crash and miss our reservation. We did manage to drag ourselves out of bed on time.
The restaurant is just a block north east of where we are, so the walk is very short. We arrived with no problem. The hostess said someone else claimed to be us and took our reservation, which baffled all of us. The blog hadn't been posted at that time, so no one knew where we were going. She couldn't figure it out and neither could we, but the restaurant wasn't anywhere near full and it wasn't a problem at all. It was strange though. The hostess guessed that they had looked at her screen and claimed the first reservation they saw. We'd guess she misheard the name they gave, but it didn't matter anyway.
Click to view the Dinner Menu. To say the atmosphere is the polar opposite of State & Lake is an understatement. The seating here is mostly in comfortable booths and it is subdued and quiet. The Hotel Monaco is in an old office building so there are some nice original decorations remaining. Our waiter was friendly and helpful. The special is a pork chop, but we want something different than we had at State & Lake, so we ordered from the menu.
The choices are inventive, as are the sides. It doesn't try so hard that it is weird though. Dave had the Ginger-Carrot soup, but it wasn't quite as good as it sounded from the description. It was a bit too heavy on the ginger, making it very spicy, but the carrot flavor was fresh. The portion was very large, probably two cups worth.
We both had the spinach-strawberry salads, which were huge. Everything was very fresh, but it wasn't the best rendition we've ever had of this salad. We liked it though. The dinner rolls weren't anything special.
Bill ordered the halibut as an entree and it was outstanding. He particularly liked the sautéed fiddlehead fern that was served with it. They were so unusual and different that the "normal" mushrooms served with them were kind of an anticlimax. Dave ordered the pork belly. The pork was outstanding and a very large portion (as was the halibut). It was served atop grilled grits that had a burnt taste, so not a big hit. There was an orange puree of something smeared across the plate, but the flavor didn't match the description, so we're not sure what it was. Overall we were happy with both of our choices and would order them again after trying some other options first.
For dessert, both of us had the lemon pound cake at the suggestion of the manager. It was also a generous portion with several interesting flavors. Click for see the Dessert Menu.
Our total bill, before tip, was $116.00, including one cocktail. Not bad for the quality of the food. We'd go back here for sure.
We were back in our room by 9:00 pm, where at least it is quiet tonight. Hotel staff was setting up the velvet ropes downstairs and the elevator was filled with club-goers, although they weren't any problem. Nothing like feeling out of place!
A housekeeper arrived for turndown service. She was very friendly and polite. The card tonight reads, "Since light travels faster than sound, people appear bright until you hear them speak." This came with two flashlight keychains. By the way, the slogan for theWit is, "More experience than hotel." Is that a good thing?
Day 6: Sunday, April 22 - Chicago, IL - theWit Hotel
It's another beautiful, sunny morning in Chicago. We were greeted with a lot of noise and awoke to found a helicopter at Wacker and State lifting huge sign letters to the roof of a nearby building. The streets in the immediate vicinity are closed. At least it gives us something new to look at. It was all over by the time we went downstairs for breakfast at 9:30 am.
Breakfast was again delicious, but way overpriced. Service continues to be very friendly.
We're not very motivated today, but we don't want to stay inside on such a beautiful day. We decided to walk to the Museum Campus and if there isn't line we'll go inside one of them. On the way, we wandered through the northern corner of Millennium Park that we didn't see the first day. All we missed was the memorial to people who had something to do with getting the park built, mostly donating lots of money judging by the names carved on the wall.
Nearby is one of many art installations. It depicts a tree of life with two seeds. OK, whatever, it is colorful and looks pretty, so mission accomplished.
We wandered up the steps to the Bean to see it in the sunlight. We're glad we saw it first on a blustery day when there weren't many people around. It is more crowded today, but still manageable. We also stopped by to watch a cycle at the Crown Fountain. After doing its thing with the spitting mouth, it changed to a scene of a forest by a rippling stream that we didn't see last time. It is better viewed when it is cloudy or after dark because the LED screens are more pronounced than they are in direct sunlight.
Our walk continued south along the park and Michigan Ave. There are numerous statues and art all through the park, both traditional and contemporary. We spotted a faded ad for corsets painted on the side of one of the old Michigan Ave. buildings.
The Museum Campus area is home to three attractions: The Shedd Aquarium, Field Museum of Natural History and the Adler Planetarium. The area surrounding them is beautiful and provides a stunning viewpoint for the Chicago lakefront skyline. It is also possible to see Soldier Field across the road in the distance.
The line for the aquarium stretched all the way down the long steps and onto the plaza. We didn't intend to go there anyway because it doesn't get great reviews. Plus, once you've seen one aquarium you've pretty much seen them all. We kept walking and came to a back entrance into the Field Museum with no wait at all. We bought the basic Discovery Pass that includes a choice of one of three special exhibits or one of two 3D movies. We chose the Mummies exhibit. The passes are $22 per person. The ticket seller was very friendly and helpful.
While we wouldn't say the museum was empty, it wasn't crowded either. After looking at the famous skeleton of Sue the dinosaur in the main hall, we got in the short line for the mummy exhibit. One of the statues and a flying dinosaur over the hall are dressed in sports jerseys for some reason. Sorry we don't know (or care) what team or sport they represent, but it is amusing. It took some effort to get way up there to dress them.
The Mummies thing is a display of several mummies that have been in storage at the museum since they were purchased for an exhibition in the late 1800's. It was somewhat crowded, but we saw everything and it was nicely presented with lots of information.
The rest of the exhibit halls weren't crowded at all. Somehow we ended up in a long chronological exhibit about the history of the Americas (or something like that.) All we remember now is it had something to do with Incas and Native Americans, but don't quote us on that. They sure do have an extensive collection here! This part of the museum display looks modern and relatively new in that it is presented in an interesting way.
After a brief rest to look at the floorplan, we wandered into the Nature Walk, which mostly consists of dusty old dioramas of stuffed animals you'd expect in a natural history museum. Nothing wrong with it, just an odd remnant of what the entire place must have looked like in the past. Large sections of galleries are walled off for updating. There is still a lot to see. Some of the newer areas depict scenes from the Pacific Islands, Egypt and such. About what you would expect and very well done...if you are into those subjects. There is a small gem room with spectacular jewelry and stones on display. That room was very popular.
As you know by now, we bore very easily in museums, but we did manage to cover almost everything that was remotely of interest to us. We even made a cursory round of the upstairs galleries.
It was 3:00 pm by the time we had had enough and walked out the front entrance. This gave us a chance to sample a Chicago hot dog from a vender out on the plaza. It was fresh and tasty, topped with all the traditional toppings. We saw a stand earlier that had a sign out announcing that putting ketchup on Chicago dogs isn't allowed in the city limits of Chicago, which we found amusing. This place didn't say that, but it wasn't offered either (we wouldn't have added it anyway, just FYI).
It is still very cold in the wind and we are in no mood to hoof it all the way back to town, so we found the taxi stand in front of the aquarium and took one back to the hotel. It was $10 well spent.
Back at the hotel, Bill stopped by the restaurant to ask if they can make the breakfast smoothie. We were told this morning, "No problem," but it seemed to cause a stir this afternoon. Nonetheless, they did make two of them for us without making a scene.
We have to be finished in time to watch 'The Amazing Race' tonight, which is on an hour earlier than we are accustomed to. So, around 5:30 pm, we pulled ourselves back together and went down to State & Lake for dinner. We assumed, rightly so, that it would be quieter on a Sunday night. We were seated at the same table we had the first night, so we're continuing the trend.
Click to review the Menu. Bill ordered the salmon and Dave had the NY strip steak with a small Caesar salad. Bill felt sick and went back to the room before he could eat it, no fault of the meal. The steak was very good, nothing to get excited over though. Dave also had the doughnut dessert which isn't as disgusting as it sounds in the description. The waiter nicely packed up Bill's meal to take back to the room for him. The bill for tonight, before tip, is exactly $70.00. That's less than we have been spending each morning on breakfast.
Dave being left to his own devices in the restaurant gave the manager her chance to try to chat him up...twice.
Dave found Bill fully recovered in the room after relieving himself of whatever he ate today that didn't sit well. Maybe that Chicago dog wasn't the best idea after all. Dave feels no ill effects from it though.
The turn-down trinket is the flexible stick again with the note, "Learn the wisdom of compromise, for it is better to bend a little than to break. --Jane Wells"
After 'The Amazing Race', we wallowed around doing pretty much nothing except sort of arranging our luggage for our departure for Springfield tomorrow. It is quiet in the hotel tonight.
The verdict on theWit: Mostly positive. The staff is very friendly and they do a sincerely good job of being helpful. Some of them even go out of their way to be proactive, which is unusual in this day and age. We do expect the staff at a Doubletree Hotel to be nice, that's what they are known for, but the staff is superior in every way. Doubletree Hotels are notoriously understaffed, but it was quite the opposite here. There is a staff member every few feet in the lobby. Our room is huge, comfortable and a good value. It is at least $100 per night less than a similar suite at other Loop properties, plus we got the $40 breakfast credit and free internet for being HHonors Diamond (also applies to Gold.)
On the downside, this place is trying very hard to be hip and edgy. Some of it is fun and interesting, but if it shows when you're trying to be something, you're trying too hard. That's the case here. It is too risky to stay here again on the off chance we'd get another party next door or whatever. That's the kind of clientele they're going for and they seem to be getting it. Stay away on the weekends unless you want to party! Would we stay here again? Probably not. There are too many other choices in Chicago we'd like to try first. Was it awful, no. It was, if fact, very nice. But, if we want to feel like old fogeys again, this is where we'll stay!
Just a reminder that all of our pictures will be posted in a Photo Gallery later. The ones we're including in the text are just the tip of the iceberg.
Day 7: Monday, April 23 - Drive to Springfield, IL - Hilton Springfield Hotel
The spirit of the "Land of Lincoln" is nowhere else so alive as it is in
Springfield, one time home to old Honest Abe himself and present home of the
Lincoln Home National Historic Site, the Lincoln-Herndon Law Offices State
Historic Site, the Old State Capitol State Historic Site, the Abraham Lincoln
Presidential Library and Museum and the Lincoln Tomb State Historic Site.
Reluctantly, we are preparing to depart Chicago and begin our cross-country road trip. Bill is still a bit queasy this morning, so Dave went down for breakfast by himself. The waiter graciously packed up some toast and tea to go. Everything was covered by the vouchers today.
We called Hertz at 9:00 am to confirm our pick-up, but the guy was too busy to talk and promised to call back. Our plan is to leave the hotel around 11:00 am. Whether or not we make any stops on the way to Springfield is up in the air. None of them are "must see" attractions, so we'll play it by ear.
The Hertz guy never called back, big surprise, so we called again. This time he said they are so busy they can't pick us up and please take a cab. He was very nice, but why do they offer something if they can't provide it? Oh well, at least he was pleasant.
Dave stopped at the front desk to check out. The assistant front office manager asked how the stay was and Dave answered, "It was fine except for the construction on Saturday." Then he stopped talking and waited for the manager to say something. He didn't act annoyed or anything of the sort, but the manager offered to remove the entire day from our bill to make up for it ($350). He also said he spent all day taking calls about it, so it was no big surprise. When Dave said he can understand the party animals, but the construction is too much, the general response was that the party thing is normal, construction isn't. The entire conversation was pleasant and it was very nice of him to offer a refund. Now we'll have to see if we actually get it since we've been down that road with a Doubletree before.
We were assisted to a cab by the manager, the concierge, and two bellmen. Sure can't fault the service. Everyone has been extremely nice and helpful. The cab driver was also very nice, asked how our stay was, etc. The cost of the ride to Union Station was only $7.00 again, plus tip (we gave him a $10 bill).
At the station we had to negotiate the escalator with all of our luggage, but the Hertz counter is located directly in front of it on the lower level. We must have a different definition of "busy" because there were no other customers there during our entire transaction. The agent was very nice though, so we'll overlook it. When Dave asked if the SUV has the Sirius radio we paid for, he upgraded us from a RAV4 to a Hyundai Santa Fe. We'd never heard of it, but he said it is new and a better car than the RAV4.
We got semi-lost on the way to the car, but eventually found a dingy corridor leading to the rental cars. The Santa Fe is very nice indeed, so we're happy. It does look brand new and doesn't smell bad or anything else untoward. We jostled around arranging all of our crap. During the commotion, Dave slammed his reading glasses in the car door, so that's one pair down the drain.
Dave is driving today because Bill is still sickly. He's functional, just not up to driving all day. The Hertz guy gave us a ticket to get out of the parking garage for free, which was very easy to do.
Our new GPS is a Garmin (old one is Magellan), so we're using it for the first time here. It took a long time to find a satellite signal, so we missed our first turn. Then she wasn't quick enough to announce the next turn, so we winged it and found our way to the freeway. We always print out maps of our route beforehand, so we're not flying blind in case the GPS goes haywire. This GPS includes traffic alerts, which was useful today when there was a traffic jam on the freeway. It referred to it as an "incident", but didn't elaborate. Turns out a semi-truck had flipped on its side and skidded down the roadway. When we reached it, it was upright, sort of, with a giant skid mark down the side. The "incident" delayed us by about twenty minutes, but it was open highway after that.
The flat countryside of farms and open prairie is interesting for about ten minutes. After that it all looks the same. The only stop we made was at a rest area about two hours into the drive. For a rest area, it was very nice and clean with lots of vending machines. Out back was a scenic boardwalk overlooking a small pond.
Our original plan called for a drive through Bloomington and a stop at the small zoo there, but we skipped it with Bill feeling under the weather. It wasn't an important site anyway, so it was better to skip it than to risk a problem.
Our next detour off the freeway was in Lincoln where we followed the business route onto Route 66 through town. We spied a giant cow in front of a Bonanza restaurant, but the reason for this detour was a true roadside attraction. That "attraction" is the World's Largest Covered Wagon, as authenticated by Guinness. It sits in a field in front of the Best Western Lincoln Inn. There is a very classy stainless steel marker in front of it telling the story of how it got here.
Back on the freeway, we followed the GPS instructions except when she'd direct us off on Joliet Rd for some reason. She seemed obsessed with this exit because she told us to turn off three different times. Luckily we knew better and stayed on the highway.
We arrived in Springfield at 4:00 pm, an hour later than scheduled, but we don't know why. We stopped at a Walgreens to stock up on trip supplies, and then drove the short distance to the Hilton Springfield. We only got lost three times, but there is no traffic and it wasn't a big deal.
The Hilton is the only tower anywhere near here, so it sticks out like a sore thumb. It is an icon to the 1980's with its cylindrical 30-story tower in the middle of a low rise city. It is only two blocks from all of the historic sites in Springfield, which is the main reason we selected it. That and it required fewer HHonors points for a free stay than the Hilton Garden Inn a few miles away.
We parked in the municipal parking structure attached to the hotel because no valet was apparent out front. After parking near the hotel entrance, we dragged in our hand luggage and found the front desk one floor down.
This place is dated outside, but even more so inside. It looks like something straight out of 1980's that hasn't been updated since. We believe it has been renovated at some point in the recent past, but it was cheaply done and many original features were overlooked (the elevators, for example). We haven't seen actual plastic plastic plants in decades.
The front desk agent was nice enough and gave us breakfast coupons and tickets for a free drink in the bar every night of our stay. This is a reward stay, so there is no charge for the room. What is odd is that he didn't ask for a credit card or anything else for that matter. He just took our word for it and that was it. He offered either a parking pass for $8.00 per day with in/out privileges, or we can pay $5.50 maximum per day. We opted for the latter because we're not planning on driving to the local sites.
Our room is on the 22nd floor with a view of the historic district and Lincoln's Home. The avocado green room doors give away the age of this place for sure. The room, being in a round tower, is pie-shaped. So, the bathrooms are tiny, but the room itself is fairly spacious. However, there are just two beds, a desk/chair, and a dresser, no other seating. There is room for a large chair or sofa, but no such luck. The room is as dusty and dingy as the public areas, but the bedding is clean. The carpet is pulling up in several places and the baseboard is coming loose. It looks like the windows haven't been washed since the hotel opened.
The tower sways and creaks in the wind, so the corners are all cracked as a result (we were aware of the swaying from TripAdvisor reviews). This place is in worse condition than the Doubletree San Pedro we complained about. How it can remain branded as a Hilton is beyond us. We doubt it even qualifies as a Doubletree at this point. But, it is tolerable, especially for free. Everything in the room functions properly and internet is free for everyone, so it will do.
Eventually we went back down and retrieved our luggage, then went to the Bennigan's Restaurant off the lobby. Click to view the Menu. There is a convention of sorts going on at the hotel and they have taken over the bar for a function. The restaurant isn't busy though, so we were seated and served right away. Our waitress was friendly.
The reviews for this place are very poor, but it isn't terrible. It is about what you'd expect for a chain restaurant like this. Bill didn't make it through dinner, so Dave asked for his sandwich to be packed up to go for later. The salads that were added to the meals for 99-cents, were large, but the lettuce was way past its prime. The pot roast was a large portion and relatively good. It was easy to substitute sweet potato fries for the mashed potatoes. All in all, it was satisfactory and the service was good. The best part is that the total bill before tip was only $25. We're not in Chicago anymore!
Bill was in fairly good shape when Dave returned to the room, but still not up for eating anything. After discussing his symptoms, we've decided he has food poisoning, so we expect he'll recover quickly enough. He is in about the same condition Dave was during the Yellowstone trip when he had to bolt for the room during dinner. Dave still holds the high score for the most illnesses during travel though. It is hard to beat measles and the unfortunate incident during the Pacific Coast Road Trip.
We were back in the room and done for the day by 8:00 pm. By the way, the weather here is just slightly warmer than it was in Chicago, in the low 60's.
Day 8: Tuesday, April 24 - Springfield, IL - Hilton Springfield Hotel
We got off to a slow start today, but we did make it to the free breakfast buffet ($11.95 for non-HHonors members) by 10:30 am. There were no other guests in the large room. The hostess told us that there hadn't been any customers since 9:00 am.
Even though it is near the end of the service hours, everything on the buffet was well-stocked, full in fact, and looked fine. We were seated by a hostess, but the food is all from the buffet. The breakfast buffet is in a room set aside for this purpose. It is not part of the restaurant. Although the decor is hideous, it looks like it has been updated more recently than other parts of the hotel.
If we paid for this buffet, we'd say it wasn't worth it, but for free it was very good. There were several cereals, oatmeal, juices, bread and bagels for toast, pastries, fruit both fresh and canned, yogurt and cottage cheese. The hot items were potatoes, something that looked like grits (sort of), scrambled eggs, scrambled eggs with ham/cheese/onions/peppers, bacon, and sausage. Everything was good, no complaints. Although they had syrup set out, there was no evidence of waffles or pancakes. The service was friendly and everyone was very nice.
The manager came over to chat toward the end and to ask if we wanted anything else before they put it all away. She told us she just got back from a vacation to Ireland she won at a bar on St. Patrick's Day.
After breakfast we set out from the hotel to explore the nearby Lincoln historic sites. Today's weather is in the low 60's and mostly sunny, although it did sprinkle slightly later in the day. It is nice for walking around and didn't require jackets to be comfortable.
Bill is feeling somewhat better and was able to eat something this morning, but we're still taking it easy today. The city is smaller than we expected, so we should be able to easily cover all of the sites we are interested in over the time we are here.
We chose this hotel based on the location and we aren't disappointed. It is just two short blocks away from the Lincoln Home Historic Site. This roughly three block square area is preserved and restored as it was when Lincoln was living here right before he became president. We went to the Visitor Center to get our free tickets for the 12:30 pm tour of the home.
This is the state capitol, so most of the buildings in the area are either historic and old, or ugly and from the 1980's when poured concrete was fashionable. Mixed in are beautiful old stone or brick churches, including the First Presbyterian that houses the Lincoln Pew.
The neighborhood surrounding the Lincoln Home is mostly original buildings restored to look as they did when Lincoln lived here. Some of them are open to explore, but most are offices or used for functions. The tree-lined streets are pleasant and it is easy to imagine that you have stepped back in time.
We only had to wait about fifteen minutes for our tour. The park ranger came and got us after another ranger had entertained us for a few minutes prior. The home is the centerpiece of the charming neighborhood.
The tour takes visitors through the entire house starting with the formal front parlor and back parlor where Lincoln learned that he was the nominee for president. Then it continues to the dining room and sitting room where the family spent most of their time. Upstairs are five bedrooms that were added by the Lincolns. First is Lincoln's Bedroom, then Mary's, a servant's room, children's bedrooms and a guest room. Back downstairs the tour ends in the kitchen where Mary did her own cooking in spite of their elevated social status. The tour ends through the back yard where there is a carriage house and a fancy three-hole outhouse.
Only the Lincoln Home requires a guided tour. The rest of the restored area is open to the public for wandering on their own.
From here we strolled a few blocks toward the State Capitol, passing by the Vachel Lindsey Home (whoever the heck that was). We didn't go inside because it was closed for the lunch hour. That's our excuse and we're sticking to it.
It is only a few blocks to the capitol and the walk is interesting. We passed an old firehouse that has been converted into law offices. We also passed by the Executive Mansion, but it isn't open for tours today. The grounds are lovely, but the whole place needs a paint job.
The State Capitol building dates from the late 1800's and is a beautiful building. The grounds house many bronze statues of notable figures, plus two large fountains of the poured concrete "updated" variety. We're all for fountains, but the design of these doesn't fit at all.
We walked up the steps and through security to check out the interior. What we saw of it is dark and ornate, but the rotunda was filled with chanting protesters yelling about child care issues, so we never got beyond the foyer. The disinterested guards were doing their best to ignore the whole thing.
Back outside, quickly, we walked back the few blocks to the Old State Capitol that has been restored to how it looked during Lincoln's time as a lawyer here. There is no charge for admission, but they ask for a donation that is suggested at $4.00 per person. We put a $10 bill in the box. A kindly volunteer asked if we wanted to join the just-departed tour, but we declined. She then offered some information on the history of the building and said we can wander around on our own. She also told us the Lincoln Museum is a must-see because of the exhibits that were designed by the Walt Disney Co. We didn't know they had anything to do with it and we plan to go there tomorrow.
As we were looking into a roped off room, a volunteer offered to let us in to see an original map they discovered in storage from just after Texas was admitted as a state. It was a cast-off that was still in its original shipping tube. It looks like it was made yesterday with all hand painted colors on sewn-together squares of parchment.
The downstairs rooms housed Auditors, the Supreme Court where Lincoln argued many cases, and other state business offices. The senate chambers are upstairs around a beautiful rotunda. We just missed the hoards of school children that piled out of several busses parked outside.
Across the street from the Old State Capitol we found the Lincoln-Herndon Law Offices where Lincoln practiced law. The downstairs was a dry goods store with his offices upstairs. It is now a free exhibit (donation requested) of Lincoln photos and such that honestly weren't very well presented or interesting. The friendly volunteer at the desk said we could join a tour in a half hour, "In the lull between the bus loads." Bill wasn't up for it, so we asked when the lull would be tomorrow and he said to come back late in the afternoon. We probably won't bother unless we've run out of things to do.
Toward the back of the small building are a poorly recreated post office and a decent gift shop. We found a few things to buy as souvenirs (remember we always buy something as a Christmas ornament or to make into one, and a T-shirt that will be cut up and made into a quilt at some point). The clerks in the gift shop were nice and chatty.
We walked back in the direction of our hotel, but made a detour back to the Lincoln Home Visitor Center to pick up some souvenirs there. After that it was a few short blocks back to the hotel for a rest before getting ready for dinner. We've been walking so much that Dave's big toe is literally black and blue. We both feel like we're walking on raw bone at the moment. Yes, we know we're big babies.
Bennigan's in the hotel for dinner again. Yuck, totally greasy. It was only $26.00, but we won't go there again unless absolutely necessary. At least it is convenient, but we'd be better off getting something from the Subway across the street.
We were back in the room and done for the day by 7:45 pm.
Day 9: Wednesday, April 25 - Springfield, IL - Hilton Springfield Hotel
At 10:30 am we went downstairs for the free breakfast at the hotel again, which is fine. Again, we were the only guests the entire time, but the food was full and properly heated. The selection is exactly the same. We noticed today that there is also an ala carte menu available, but we didn't look at it since our vouchers are only for the buffet. The food offered is good and enough of a variety to please everyone.
After breakfast, Bill decided it is time to see a doctor to "get this over with," so we looked up a walk-in clinic nearby and drove over there around noon. The Springfield Clinic is a new, modern facility similar to what we have at home. It is only a few blocks from the hotel, but we drove in case something happened that would make the walk back difficult. There was no wait at all other than answering a few questions at the reception desk and signing a couple of forms. There were no lengthy forms to fill out and our insurance was accepted. No sooner had we taken a seat than we were called back.
The nurse was amusing and took the vitals and such. In just a few minutes the female doctor arrived. She was a lot of fun under the circumstances. We asked her if she could come back with us and be our doctor at home, but she declined.
Long story short, Bill has a gastrointestinal bug most likely from food poisoning as we had suspected. He was prescribed some antibiotics and offered a shot to speed things up, which he accepted after some coaxing by Dave. Other than that, the doctor said he looks fine and doesn't appear to have anything seriously wrong.
So, after waiting ten minutes to be sure the shot wasn't going to kill him, we took off to the nearby CVS to pick up his prescription. It was supposed to be sent by computer immediately, but the clerk claimed it hadn't come in yet. Eventually, the pharmacist looked at the computer himself and it was indeed in the system. There were no other customers waiting and he filled it immediately. If this was our CVS back home we'd still be waiting. The doctor told Bill to eat toast, bananas and rice, plus drink lots of Gatorade, so we picked up some of that. We had already taken bananas from the buffet this morning, so we're all set. If he sticks to a diet like that it will be a miracle.
We drove to the Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum near the hotel, but we missed the turn for the parking, so we went back to the hotel instead. The parking structure was almost full, but we found a place and returned to the room to regroup before walking over to the museum.
At 2:30 pm, we started out on foot for the two blocks to the museum. It is very warm today, over 80 degrees and threatening to rain. That means it is also very humid. We are glad our major walking was done before today since it is hotter than we'd like for that sort of activity today.
The Lincoln Presidential Museum and Library is two matching limestone buildings across the street from one another. They opened in 2007 or thereabouts, so the entire facility is modern and state of the art. Admission to the library is free, but we're here to see the exhibits in the museum section. There is a $12 per person admission fee for the museum, reduced to $11 for AAA members. For some unexplained reason, they attached a wristband instead of giving us tickets.
The first thing you see upon entering is a large rotunda with a replica of Lincoln's boyhood cabin to the left and the White House to the right. There are lifelike figures of Lincoln's family and other figures in the lobby area for photos. The White House doorway leads to the story of his presidential years through to his assassination. The cabin side leads through his boyhood years. Both exhibits are amazing in their detail right down to the flickering candles. The dramatic music that changes with each turn of a corner leads us to assume that the entire thing has some connection to Disney. The whole place is immaculately maintained and looks like new.
There are two multi-media shows here, each of which is worth the price of admission alone. The first is 'Through Lincoln's Eyes' a dramatic show on three screens with special effects. The floor shakes, cannons shoot smoke rings, it smells like burning buildings, lightning flashes and multiple screens and sets are revealed. It is very Disney-esque and extremely well done.
The other show 'Ghosts of the Library' is shown in "Holavision 3D". Whether it is actually a hologram is debatable, but the effect is very good. A live actor portrays a historian who turns out to be the ghost of a civil war soldier brought back from the dead. It sounds stupid, but it is very nicely done. The effects are amazing and leave you wondering how they did it.
Both of the shows run just over fifteen minutes and are shown on the hour and and half hour, so it is easy to see everything in a couple of hours, which is exactly what we did. Anyone interested in the details of Lincoln's life could easily spend much more time examining the exhibits. There is a small section displaying artifacts from Lincoln's life. Another gallery is closed to install a new exhibit.
There is also an interactive theater aimed at kids where they can ask Lincoln pre-programmed questions and get an answer from him. We didn't participate in it, but we would assume it is equally well done based on everything we did see.
A Subway cafe is here for a snack and a very attractively designed gift shop is at the exit. All of the volunteers are helpful. When Dave asked one of them who designed the exhibits, she seemed reluctant at first to admit it was Disney (there is a long story behind it and technically it wasn't the Disney Co., but in essence it was Disney designed). He told her he thought so and she asked, "What made you think so?" He told her the style of the music screamed Disney and it had a deja vu effect on him since we both worked at Disneyland and know the way they do things and how their shows are presented. For more information on the facility, click HERE.
We finished the museum visit at 4:00 pm and walked across the street to a nice new park with several Lincoln statues. It sits in front of an elaborate train station. From here we wandered back to the historic downtown area to scout out a restaurant for later. Ultimately we decided it would be better for Bill to pick up food from Subway to eat in the room later. That way he won't have to sit in a restaurant and he can eat whatever he feels up to.
After picking up our food for later, we returned to the hotel where we stayed for the rest of the day. We have to avert our eyes from the dusty rose corridors with the avocado green doors and carpet every time we leave the room.
The verdict on the Hilton Springfield: Dusty. If you ever need a perfect example of the term "dated" this is it. The staff is nice and helpful, the room is comfortable for the most part, but this place was past its prime twenty years ago. It shouldn't be branded as a Hilton. We're not sure it would even qualify as a DoubleTree at this point. It has been updated over time, but it was a piecemeal, half-hearted effort. If it wasn't so dusty in the corners it might not be so bad, but as it is it just isn't clean enough. The windows haven't been washed since the hotel opened judging by how nearly-opaque they are. The carpet looks fairly new, but it is rippled up in some places and dusty in the corners. We stayed for free with points, so we can say it is worth what we paid. There is no way we'd pay more than $100 a night to stay here (regular rates are around $150). We didn't notice the creaking as much as expected based on the reviews. Besides, the train whistles drown it out. We probably wouldn't stay here again, but if we had to it is acceptable...barely.
By the way, we earned over 50,000 HHonors points from our Chicago stay which more than pays for our stay in Tucson. Bonus upon bonus from both Hilton and Amex really added up. We have not, as of today, received the promised $350 refund for the construction noise and we're guessing we'll never see it. If we do, we'll let you know.
Day 10: Thursday, April 26 - Drive to Hannibal, MO - Quality Inn & Suites
Nearly 160 years ago Mark Twain transformed this sleepy river town into an
American icon. Today,
Hannibal offers many adventures in the spirit of those the author made
famous. Explore the caves, cruise on the riverboat, take in the museums
and galleries, visit Twain sites, shop and dine around town and experience the
excitement and magic of Tom and Huck.
We're getting ready to move on this morning. There were severe storm warnings overnight, but as far as we're aware nothing happened. Might have been some thunder a time or two, but that's about it. It is supposed to be cooler today, in the low 70's, and it is clear this morning.
Springfield is a nice little town. There isn't much to do if you aren't into the Lincoln sites, but it is a friendly town and not crowded at all. The restaurants are either very fancy or pub/bar type places, but the prices are reasonable. It is amazing we were able to walk right in to a clinic and see a doctor without a wait. Certainly the polar opposite from what we are used to.
We gathered part of our stuff and took it to the car, then went to breakfast. There were actually other people in the room this time, but it wasn't crowded by any stretch. The food was the same with the addition of cheese blintzes to the hot section replacing the unrecognizable goo that was there before. There were also biscuits and gravy we didn't see before today.
Bill is feeling much better today, so we're hopeful he'll return to normal shortly. In the meantime, Dave is still driving, so stay off the roads!
We checked out around 11:00 am and drove a few miles north to Lincoln's Tomb. All we expected was a big stone monument, which it is, but it is located in a beautiful old cemetery. The tomb has its own Caretaker's House next to it that is used as offices now. Originally someone lived there full time to care for the tomb and the grounds.
The tomb itself is a limestone obelisk on top of a base with various carvings representing the states at the time Lincoln was president. The base is topped with a standing bronze of Lincoln flanked by battle scenes. In front of the monument is a large bronze bust of Lincoln that has been worn shiny by so many people touching the nose.
We were surprised that the interior of the tomb is open for viewing. In the rotunda just inside the entrance, a strange volunteer told us about the silver leaf ceiling (it isn't silver, but something similar that is very expensive) and that the cost of it expresses how much the people care for Lincoln. There are corn husks formed in the air vents and the marble columns inlaid around the room represent the states (or something like that, but you get the idea).
A long, dimly lit corridor leads to the actual resting place where a volunteer stands guard and answers questions. The actual remains are ten feet below the marble monument in this room. Another long marble-lined corridor leads back to the rotunda. It is unfortunate the interior shows many signs of moisture damage. The volunteer said they are trying to raise money to fix it now that the roof has been repaired.
Behind the tomb is the Receiving Vault where Lincoln and one of his sons were brought before the main tomb was ready.
Our next destination, about twenty miles away, is Lincoln's New Salem. This is a recreated village where Lincoln spent a few of his early adult years. He was a shopkeeper, among other things. The entire town only existed for ten years before it was abandoned, so it has been rebuilt by volunteers over time. There is a nice visitor center with a few exhibits and scary old volunteers at the desk. They show an orientation film there, but we skipped it.
The entire site is 700 acres, but the village itself is one long walkway lined with log cabins, shops, a mill, and a large gift shop at the end. Lincoln's first store is recreated and several of the homes and workshops are open for viewing. Depending on who is volunteering that day, there could be a blacksmith working, women weaving, people gardening, or shopkeepers making implements. We only saw a woman gardening and another at the tavern making something out of a gourd. The garden at the tavern is the nicest of them all, but there are others with rows of lettuce and such dotted around. There are about 25 buildings in all.
We only ran into maybe ten other people, no screaming school children, so it was pleasant wandering around. If it was crowded the whole ambience would be ruined. As it was today, it is easy to imagine what living here was like. They have it well shielded by thick trees from the outside world and the approach from the visitor center is curved so the village square is revealed as you round the bend.
They request a donation of $4.00 per person, but nobody enforces or asks for it. We walked back to the parking lot and checked out the extremely filthy and dumpy cafe (closed) and gift shop (filled with screaming children) at the entrance. The one at the other end of the village is very nice in a stone building staffed by pleasant volunteers.
Back on the road, we started off in the direction of our next destination, Hannibal, MO. We stopped at a historic marker sign along the way that was a concocted story about some historic hawthorn trees planted on the road to New Salem. Whatever. We got ticks on us there, so it wasn't a total loss. Luckily we noticed before they could bite us.
Our GPS took us along some narrow country roads to get to the highway, but it was scenic driving through the farms. The farmhouses here are upscale and surrounded by manicured lawns and landscaping. The ones we saw from the train were surrounded by junk yards, if anything.
Once on the highway toward Hannibal, it was an easy drive with no traffic whatsoever. The flat farmlands morphed into rolling hills the closer we got to the Missouri state line.
A big sign pointed to "Historic Winchester", so we veered off to check it out. It is about 1/2 mile off the highway. There are lovely old Victorian mansions on the way into town, so it must have been something in its day. Now all it has to offer is a run-down, ramshackle town square with a bronze of Stephen Douglas in the center, a cannon from 1912, and the courthouse. That's all we know. The courthouse looked nice and very incongruous in such a dumpy town. We couldn't get back on the highway fast enough.
We arrived in Hannibal after crossing the Mississippi River and the state line. Our motel is located a couple of miles outside town along the highway. The motel we wanted in the downtown area is booked up because of "Ladies Weekend", so we might be better off.
There is nothing around the motel, the Quality Inn & Suites, except a restaurant, veterinary clinic and a sort of tidy junk yard. It looks like this was supposed to be part of a commercial development that was never completed. The hotel looks OK for what it is and is relatively new. The lobby is larger than we'd expect from a place like this and is set up to host some sort of function later. They have a Happy Hour from 5-7:30 pm with free appetizers and guests can purchase drinks from the bar. A complimentary breakfast is served in the morning until 9:30 am. Whether we get up in time for that tomorrow remains to be seen. The desk clerk told us to park on the side and use that entrance to be closer to the elevator, so that's what we did. We asked for, and got, a room on the top floor (3rd). This avoids hearing people walk around above us all night.
We debated about upgrading from a King Suite to the only suite with two beds, but it is $20 more and has a two-person Jacuzzi tub. That sounds like overkill, so we're sticking with what we reserved. For roughly $94.00 per night we get a living room with sofa, chair, TV, desk, microwave and refrigerator, and a separate bedroom with a king bed, chair and another TV. The bathroom separates the two rooms. The decor is, to be nice, grandmotherly. It is about as clean as the last place, but that is what we expect in this price range, not at a Hilton. All in all, it is a great value and serves its purpose.
At 6:30 pm we walked to the Fiddlesticks Restaurant across the parking lot. Click to view the Menu. They have a huge menu with all sorts of stuff, so we didn't expect it to be very good, but it was fine. Dave had the pulled pork platter with fruit and steamed vegetables. Bill had the California wrap with fruit. Everything was good and the total bill before tip was only $27.00. The service was, uh, amateurish, but we got what we ordered very quickly. We didn't order dessert.
Back at the hotel, we picked up some tourist brochures and checked out the large indoor pool. There is a spa hidden behind the fake rocks around the pool, so it is anyone's guess what is going on back there. The bar was open for Happy Hour, but we didn't see what kind of food was being offered.
The room is fine except there is only one dim lamp in the living room. There are four lamps in the bedroom. What's up with that? Luckily we aren't readers! We called it a night when we got back to the room at 8:00 pm.
Day 11: Friday, April 27 - Hannibal, MO - Quality inn & Suites
Be sure to bring earplugs if you are staying at this hotel. There are three dogs next door that bark non-stop all day and night. We have earplugs, but could still hear the large dog, although it didn't wake us up.
We were up early today, so we made it to the complimentary breakfast at 9:00 am. It was very nice for a budget place like this. There were three styles of scrambled eggs: plain, with cheese, and with tortillas/cheese/onions/peppers. They also have biscuits and gravy, sausage, bacon and oatmeal. There are make-your-own waffle machines, whole fruit, yogurt, three cereals, bread, and a few muffins. There is a juice machine that has three kinds of juice. We were able to fill up with no problem. The woman keeping the food stocked was very nice.
It is very chilly and overcast today. It remained in the high 40's/low 50's all day and windy. It doesn't make much difference to us since all of the attractions we're visiting today are indoors or mostly so.
We set out around 10:30 am for downtown Hannibal. Our GPS directed us onto the highway in front of the hotel, but it would have been just as fast taking surface streets since there is no traffic around here. We drove through town a couple of miles to our first stop, the Mark Twain Cave. Click to view their Brochure.
The cave complex has been a tourist attraction since 1890, so it is very developed. There are three gift shops and a cafe, plus the main gift shop where tickets are purchased. It is $12.95 per person for the tour.
We arrived right before a tour started, so we only waited about five minutes before being ushered into a room to watch a video about the history of the cave. This is the cave that Mark Twain used as inspiration for the Tom Sawyer stories. The entrance used since the 1890's is paved and level. The original entrance is above and to the left.
These are limestone caves that have crystal embedded now and then. It is a layered world of narrow corridors leading off in all directions. The tour follows an oval pathway that is 250' below the surface at the deepest spot. The walk is mostly level, but it goes straight into the side of a large hill, so that accounts for the eventual depth. The walk is on hard packed mud and there are no steps, so it is easy. The inside of the cave stays at 70 degrees year round.
Much of the cave is stained by soot from early tourists' torches. Originally visitors were encouraged to write their name in the cave. The ones we saw were from the 1930's and 1890's, but the entire pathway is lined with them. Since the cave complex became a National Historic Monument in the 1970's, it is now illegal to write on the walls. They either blackened the wall with a torch and scratched their name, wrote with a pencil, or used black paint.
There were about thirty people on our tour and it moved quickly. The guide was amusing, telling Tom Sawyer stories and generally scaring the youngsters in the group. A few features are an authenticated Jesse James Hideout, a frozen quartz waterfall, narrow corridors of layered limestone, a grotto reflected in a shallow pond below, and another grotto lit with colorful floodlights. Most of the delicate natural features of the cave are long gone, taken by early tourists as souvenirs. The cave is still impressive and worth the price of admission. The tour lasts about an hour.
There used to be thousands of bats in the cave that hung in clusters like chandeliers. The only evidence of them today is the stains left on the ceiling. We did see one lone bat in the cave during the tour, but the guide said the lights and noise scared most of them away years ago.
The tour ends in the gift shop, so we bought a couple of our usual small souvenirs. It was raining when we went outside, but not enough to keep us from walking across the street to look at the two shops there. One is a rock and gemstone shop staffed by a nice older man. The other is a candle maker that was sparsely stocked, but the woman making molds for a school group was nice. How either of these places make any money is a mystery to us since they have almost nothing worth buying.
Back on the road to town, we passed a tacky permanent carnival across the highway from the cave turnoff. We turned off at the sign pointing toward Lovers Leap. A narrow winding road leads up to the leap and a spectacular view over the Mississippi River and the entire town of Hannibal below. The leap was named after a Native American couple who jumped to their death because he was being pursued by killers opposed to their union. OK, sure, but it makes for a romantic story.
In less than two miles we found ourselves back in downtown Hannibal, so we turned toward the river to check out the waterfront. There is an old brick grocery building, an old park, the Mark Twain Riverboat attraction, and a fishing area. We thought it odd that all of this and the railroad tracks are located outside of the levy gate, but maybe the river doesn't flood that often.
Downtown Hannibal is a mixture of restored and ramshackle old stores and office buildings. For the most part, it is in good shape. There is an antique or second-hand shop every few feet. We didn't go into any of the shops since they aren't selling anything we haven't seen at every other tourist location on the planet.
At the end of Main St. is the Tom and Huck statue at the base of a steep hill. There is a white lighthouse atop the hill, but it was too steep a walk for us. The remnants of the original Mark Twain Memorial Bridge are behind the statue and we did walk up there for a look. There is a line of old homes and shops next to the statue.
This area is the location of the Mark Twain Home & Museum. We went into the welcome center to buy tickets ($10 per person), looked at the exhibits there, and continued following the signs to other structures. Out the back door is the Huck Finn House, but a large school group was headed there, so we skipped ahead to the Mark Twain house. The interior is open, sort of, for viewing, and, of course, it leads to an attached gift shop.
Leaving the gift shop we found ourselves outside of the home and Tom Sawyer's Fence. Across the way are the Becky Thatcher House (closed for renovation), the Clemens Law Office and an old Drug Store on Main St. A few blocks down is the Mark Twain Museum & Gallery that is included in the ticket price.
The museum houses exhibits mostly geared toward children and teenagers, but it is worth a look. A mockup of a riverboat wheelhouse was popular with the kids. There is a resident storyteller upstairs who was regaling the school group with tales.
After checking out the gift shop, we walked around the downtown area a bit, then headed for the Mark Twain Dinette for lunch. Who can resist a small town restaurant that still refers to itself as a "dinette"? They even make their own root beer. The friendly waitress tried to sell us on it, but Bill isn't into root beer and Dave can't have the sugar, so she was out of luck. We ordered the "Maid-Rite" sandwiches. These are loose ground beef with salt, pepper, onions and pickles on a hamburger bun. Click to view the Menu. Dave's aunt used to make them based on the ones sold at Nu-Way fast food places. We liked them and it was cheap...the total bill was about $13.00.
Next we drove a few blocks to the Rockcliffe Mansion. It was abandoned for over 40 years until it was rescued from demolition at the last minute and restored. Today it is open for tours and overnight stays as a Bed and Breakfast. We stopped for a photo and didn't take a tour. There are many cute old homes in the area, but most of them look like they are about to fall down. It is a shame that more of them haven't been restored or at least maintained.
We overheard the waitress telling some visitors that they need to be careful what parts of town they visit. Apparently there are some very sketchy areas where drug dealing runs rampant along with crimes associated with it. The general area looks very depressed and there are numerous abandoned houses and businesses along almost every street. We didn't pass through any scary areas today, but we wouldn't want to live here based on what we've seen. The people dealing directly with tourists are pleasant enough.
We stopped for gas, and then made our way back to the hotel around 3:30 pm. Although the maids were all over the place when we left and still out in the halls when we returned, our room was not touched. We have enough supplies to last, but it is annoying to be overlooked. That will knock a star off our review for this place.
The evening news forecasts rain for the weekend and all next week. We're not looking forward to later in the week when it is raining and 80 degrees! Rain won't affect any of our planned activities for our stop in Marceline, but it might force a few modifications in St. Louis. There are plenty of "Plan B" alternatives ready to go, so it isn't a problem. Besides, we could use a day of downtime soon.
We went to Fiddlesticks at 7:00 pm for dinner. It was jam packed, but we only waited ten minutes for a table. The food was very good and an extremely good value. We both had full dinners (the pork chop and a glazed chicken breast) including a large salad and the bill only came to $32.00. Service is perfunctory, but it gets the job done and we were out of there before 8:30 pm. Drinks are frequently refilled. We have never been offered dessert, but since we didn't want it, we don't mind.
The hotel parking lot is full, but it is for a function in the meeting room. We haven't heard anyone arrive to stay today.
It looks stormy tonight and is very windy. Maybe it will keep the barking dog inside tonight. One can only hope.
Day 12: Saturday, April 28 - Drive to Marceline, MO - Uptown Theater Bed & Breakfast
Go to Disneyland in California -- or to the Magic Kingdom at Walt Disney World
in Florida, or Tokyo Disneyland, Hong Kong Disneyland or Disneyland Paris
-- and you will find that there is only one entrance: Under the station of the
old-fashioned steam railroad, through a town square, and down the Main Street of
a nostalgic, ginger-breaded, nineteenth-century American town. The town is
lavish in its detailing: The names of the lawyers and accountants in gilt
lettering on the second-story windows, the horse-drawn trolley down the middle
of the street, the ice-cream parlor with the ceiling fans turning overhead. The
town could be straight out of The Music Man, or Oklahoma -- or it could be
Missouri, the little town by the railroad where Walt spent his boyhood, finally
We were up early again this morning. No reason, just happened. It is cool and partly cloudy, but is supposed to rain later today.
The complimentary breakfast was again plentiful and well stocked. There were more guests there today, but it wasn't crowded by any means. What they provide is well above average for this type of hotel.
The final verdict on the Quality Inn & Suites: Good value. It isn't luxurious, but it gets the job done. The breakfast is very nice. The suites are enormous, but with only one dim lamp in the living room, all you can do in that room is watch TV. Anyone who expects to get any work done is out of luck because there is no light for the desk. The bed is hard as a rock, but good enough. It is somewhat noisy with slamming doors and the dogs barking next door all night, but not unbearable. We don't like being overlooked for maid service, but we didn't run out of supplies, so it is a wash for us. A room this large for only $94 a night is a bargain. We would prefer to have stayed at our original choice in town, but this place is fine and we'd stay here again.
We returned to downtown Hannibal to do our laundry after checking out at 10:30 am. The Laundromat was very clean and we accomplished what we came for in about an hour. So, we were on the road to Marceline by noon.
There is no traffic at all around here. We probably didn't see more than twenty other vehicles during the entire 90-minute drive. Well, it would have been 90 minutes if we hadn't followed a sign pointing to the Mark Twain Birthplace. Turns out it is seventeen miles off the highway.
No matter, we have nothing better to do, so off we go through a cute little town and out into the farm lands. We took a wrong turn, but found the route again quickly. As is our usual luck, right at the last half-mile to the historic site, on the other side of a river, the bridge was closed for repairs. Oh well, nice try. We did go to the boat landing to look at the lake and got a view of the closed bridge from a distance. Wasn't that exciting?
OK, back to the highway to continue west. Long Branch Lake has a visitor center and everything, so we turned off again to look at it. Yawn. The visitor center is closed and it is a big man-made lake created by an earthen dam. It looks nice for recreation, but not sightseeing. There are restrooms in the picnic area, so it must be important.
We arrived on the outskirts of Marceline at around 3:00 pm. A white water tower welcomes visitors outside town. Our GPS told us to turn on a dead end street to "Main St. USA" which is really Kansas Ave. We found our way across the railroad tracks at the next street and turned right to the Uptown Theater, our stop for the next two nights.
Out front, the owner, Debbie, was wandering around holding a toddler. Her daughter, the toddler's mother, is here helping out today. When we got out of the car, she came over and greeted us, and then we went inside the "bakery" attached to the theater she also owns. We were surprised that this is an operating business, but there was a case of baked goods for sale. Otherwise it looks like something that went out of business a while ago. Apparently she caters to make ends meet and the store does have posted hours.
Debbie is very chatty, in a good way. She offered to walk us to the Disney museum and introduce us to the person running it. This is after we told her we worked on Main St. at Disneyland and this is a pilgrimage of sorts. She also wanted us to meet the proprietor of an antique shop down the street. However, she quickly became distracted and all that was forgotten. She asked when we want breakfast tomorrow, but changed the subject before she got a definitive answer. She does know we prefer later over earlier, but what that actually means we have no idea. We did get a brochure and instructions about where to go.
She took us inside the old theater to show us around. This is something we were very interested in doing. Old places like this are very interesting. This one needs some gay guys to put some life back into it. As it is, it is barely functional, but probably looks the way it has for the recent past. Debbie runs the entire place by herself with occasional help from her daughter. Since she is pulled in twenty directions at once, there is no way she can concentrate on any one thing. It is too bad because she is very friendly and has lots of information to impart. If she could afford to hire some help she could have more fun with it.
There is an old ticket booth out front with a Tinkerbelle doll sitting in it. Inside the small lobby is a snack bar, and then the theater itself is through double doors. There is a large stage that has been added in front of the screen, but otherwise it is unchanged.
Debbie offered to show us a portion of a Disney video about Marceline in the theater, so of course we watched it. She wanted us to sit in the theater and watch a full-length video, but we're too tired to do that today. Also, the theater is very musty and not someplace we can stay for any length of time. It would be great if someone with some bucks could come in and really fix this place up.
We were told to choose one of two rooms that Debbie selected for us. The first is the Santa Fe suite on the second floor. It has a nice bedroom at the front with a small dining room and kitchen at the back. Up the stairs to the third floor is the Toonfest Suite that Debbie said is the most popular. The reason is that famous cartoonists have drawn all over the dining room walls during their visits to the annual Toonfest held in Marceline in September. This is a two bedroom suite with a regular sized bedroom with sofa in front and a smaller bedroom with a daybed off to the side. We chose this room because it is brighter. The bathrooms in both rooms are microscopic, so no difference there.
The rooms were originally apartments. The theater was added to the building and opened in 1930. Debbie showed movies until recently when it became too cost-prohibitive to continue. She said it is very difficult to keep up with the work and the financial burden of the business by herself, but she didn't elaborate. We know she has the building/business up for sale if anyone wants to move to the sticks and take it off her hands. We'd love a project like this, but Marceline is WAY too rural for us.
We decided to wander up and down Main St. since it is too early for dinner. Debbie said the only options for food here in the evening are the El Cimarron Mexican Restaurant up the block, a Sonic drive-in, and a sandwich shop on the highway. The only other operating restaurant in the town closes at 3:00 pm.
Our best guess is that 95% of the shops along the street are empty. There were several restaurants at one time, but all are long closed, as are the shops. Most of the store windows have had props set up so they don't look quite as forlorn, but the economy hasn't been kind to Marceline. The city does appear to be making somewhat of an effort since there are new welcome banners on the light posts. They have also installed cute Main St. street signs along the street.
There are a few charming old brick buildings along the street, but it isn't anything like the fake Disneyland version of Main St. Even if the shops were resurrected, the city would have a lot of work to do to bring this place back to anything resembling a tourist destination. It is too bad because they do have something here, but they aren't taking enough advantage of it. More Disney-related events throughout the year would do wonders to bring some life back to the town.
We walked a few short blocks to Ripley Park. The park has a gazebo similar to the one that used to be in Town Square at Disneyland. There is a newer Veterans' Memorial, a caboose, a locomotive marked with the Santa Fe & Disneyland moniker (how did they get permission to do that???), an empty fountain, a small pond, and some play equipment for kids. Adjacent to the park is the lovely old Carnegie Library building.
The business district is only about five blocks long and one street wide. The residential area begins after a 1910-built church. The houses are well kept and charming. Some of the side streets still show the original red brick paving.
We walked back the length of the downtown, then back to the El Cimarron Restaurant that is housed in a building that has been here since the town was founded. It was originally a jeweler and still has the tin ceiling and other fancy decorations. This building was the inspiration for Coke Corner at Disneyland, although in our opinion it looks nothing like it. After an addition to the building burned down, a faded ad for 5-cent Coca-Cola was revealed on the neighboring building. This would be the sign seen by Walt as a child. Unfortunately, like everything else we have seen, it is in desperate need of a thorough restoration before it is too late.
The restaurant was empty when we arrived at 5:30 pm, but it quickly filled up with locals. Finding anything resembling Mexican food in a town like this is amazing enough, but the real surprise is that the food is good. It is all freshly made and wasn't heavy or gooey like some Mexican food can be. The beef enchiladas weren't anything to write home about, but the beef and chicken taquitos were to die for, as was the fajita burrito. The total bill came to $27, before tip. Since there are no other options, we'll probably go back tomorrow.
After dinner we returned to the Uptown Theater and settled in for the night. Old doesn't begin to describe this place, but it is a decent place to stay and the hospitality offered makes up for the physical deficiencies. The important things are clean enough and there are lots of cute knick knacks, awards and signed photos in the hallway to look at. We're tempted to send her some of the Disney crap we have lying around.
Day 13: Sunday, April 29 - Marceline, MO - Uptown Theater Bed & Breakfast
There was thunder and lightning overnight that continued into the day. It looks like it will be a stormy day today. We're not venturing more than a few blocks from the theater anyway (or we'd be out in the country), so it won't affect us much. The temperature is in the low 50's at 8:30 am.
We slept well after the rock hard beds and barking dogs in Hannibal. There is noise on the street out front and the trains run frequently behind the building, but none of that bothered us. By the way, Bill has returned to normal health.
Since our conversation yesterday with Debbie about the timing for breakfast was vague, we're basically just waiting for something to happen this morning. The museum doesn't open until 1:00 pm, so there's no rush to go out...and it is raining. A different very friendly Debbie's daughter delivered breakfast around 10:30 am...potato/cheese/ham quiche, giant cinnamon rolls, a bowl of fruit, and a big pitcher of grape juice. Everything was tasty. It contained more sugar than Dave has had in the entire year prior, but it didn't put him into a coma, so it's all good.
The wi-fi here stopped working last night, so we asked Debbie's daughter if she knows how to reset it. She doesn't, so we'll likely be out of touch until we reach St. Louis. The only drag about it is that there isn't anything to do, so without internet all we have available is TV. We do need some down time, but having literally nothing to do isn't what we had in mind. Yeah, well, we could read, but that would be ridiculous.
We set off to the south end of town via Main St. to the Walt Disney Municipal Park. There is a community pool that was dedicated by Walt Disney in 1960 (or thereabouts, and looks it). At one corner of the park are the remnants of the Midget Autopia ride that was donated to the town by Disneyland in 1966. All that remains is the track and the shade structure. The dedication plaque is still there, also.
Adjacent to the Disney Park is Club House Lake. This and a club house building were built in 1900 by the Santa Fe Railroad for use by employees and their families. The city took it over in the 1960's. The club house burned down in 1967. Faded brick columns are the only reminders of Santa Fe.
Across the tracks from the park is one of only three remaining concrete coal chutes. They were used until the early 1900's for refueling locomotives. The chutes served two tracks. There is also a round sand storage tower remaining. When diesel was introduced, the chutes were no longer needed. The railroad yard is now largely abandoned since no trains stop in Marceline these days.
Our next stop is north of town. The Disney family home is located there, but it is private property and not open to visitors. Behind it is a small parking area for visitors to Walt's Dreaming Tree and Barn. The tree is now dead (it was diseased and then hit by lightning), but a new one was planted a few years ago by representatives from Walt Disney World who brought soil and water from the Florida park for the occasion.
A short stroll from the tree is a reconstruction of Walt's Barn. Guests are encouraged to sign the interior of the barn, so we added our names to the hundreds already there. It started to rain again while we were in the barn, but not enough that we had to wait before moving on.
We drove along the road a bit further until it turned to gravel. Several of the farms along the road are marked as the original farmers who helped Elias Disney with the harvest when his family first moved to Marceline.
Our final stop for today is the Walt Disney Hometown Museum located in the old Santa Fe depot. You know by now that we aren't museum people, even when we're interested in the subject matter. However, we ended up staying here the entire time it was open from 1-4 pm. Most of that time was spent talking to the volunteers.
When we arrived we were greeted, paid our $5 per person admission, and then the woman at the desk called out, "Inez, the two Cast Members are here!" Debbie was busy yesterday. She had called and told them all about us. You'd think we fell off a Christmas tree.
Inez's family lived in the only air conditioned house in the town when Walt Disney came to visit for an official event, so her family was chosen to host them. You'd never guess she is 82 years old because she is so vibrant and looks great. She regaled us with fascinating stories about Walt's family and other things as she led us around the lobby of the station. She also explained the connection to the railroad. Two other couples arrived and joined the tour. Inez's infectious enthusiasm and great story telling ability really brought the whole experience to life. Without her and the other volunteers it would not have been half as interesting or engaging.
The museum is operated by a locally formed group and receives no support other than donations. They were given a large stash of belongings from the Disney family. So, most of what is on display is letters to and from Walt and his relatives to various city officials and friends. The townspeople are rightly proud of their connection to Disney, but didn't start to play it up until the 100th anniversary of Walt's birthday. It was after that they started the museum, built the barn, etc.
Next to the large foyer area is a room displaying one of the Midget Autopia cars that wasn't used on the track and is the only one surviving. There is interest from the museum in reinstalling the ride behind the museum where they can protect and maintain it properly. The city isn't interested in operating it due to liability concerns. There are still people at Disney who want to help bring it back to working order.
After showing us the Autopia car and discussing the donation from Disneyland, she took us into another room where they have one of the 100th anniversary giant Mickey's on display. After that we were on our own to explore the rest of the museum. We went back to the beginning to look more closely at the displays before doing the rest of it.
Inez's daughter Kaye, who worked at the Carousel of Progress at Disneyland, had just arrived to replace Inez as a guide. She was thrilled to meet us and we immediately began reminiscing about working at Disneyland. It is an amazing connection we all have that is similar to WWII veterans if you ever overhear a group of us. We enjoyed talking to her for quite a while before going on to look at the displays. We all agree it is horrifying that Cast Members are allowed to take their costumes home, have facial hair, etc. Dave remembers sending people home because their shoes had too many eyelets or girls were wearing too much makeup. He even had wardrobe sew together a bra for a waitress who forgot hers. We highly doubt anyone would even notice, much less care, about those details today. Kaye said they had to wear white gloves and be inspected twice before appearing at their post.
The rest of the museum has displays donated by Disney family members including a TV one of them used to watch the dedication of Disneyland. They continuously show a documentary on Walt Disney that originally showed on TV. We watched most of it before moving on to the displays upstairs.
On the upper floor is a model of Disneyland made by a devoted fan. He died before it could be completed, but it is an amazing rendition of most of the park. We noticed that the Sunkist Citrus House is placed on the wrong side of the street, so that means we are truly Disney geeks.
After finishing the displays, we wandered back to the lobby and continued our chat with Kaye. Before we knew it, it was closing time and we were still going strong. In addition to chatting about Disneyland, we talked about ways to promote the museum and town better, and she gave us some ideas for our drive to St. Louis tomorrow. Kaye asked if we think a Cast Member reunion would be an event they should try and we encouraged her to give it a shot. CM's at our age seem to be making an effort to find co-workers and get back in touch with their "roots". For most of us, working at Disneyland was a wonderful time in our life and we agree with Kaye that it would make a good basis for an event.
Kaye told us we added some magic to her day and she's glad we made the effort to come to Marceline. We told her that the same applies to her and isn't it wonderful that we're all still creating magical moments for one another. After hugs all around, we headed out.
We're going to fulfill our promise to Kaye here and encourage everyone to visit Marceline and the museum. Please go to Facebook and 'like' the museum to bring as much attention to it as possible: www.facebook.com/WaltDisneyHometownMuseum. Or visit their website at www.WaltDisneyHometownMuseum.org. If you can make a donation we encourage you to help these hardworking volunteers keep the dream alive. You may also want to visit www.toonfest.net for information on this popular annual event.
In our opinion, the town needs to promote itself more. One event a year isn't enough to support Main St. businesses as evidenced by the empty storefronts. Hopefully, the dedicated volunteers and city officials will keep up the good work and get this town on track. They have a wealth of friendly citizens, all of whom have been very welcoming to us. Come visit Marceline!
Kaye told us that there are two large businesses here, one is a fan manufacturer, and that agriculture is still the major activity here. We saw cattle ranches on the outskirts of town that look prosperous. The houses in the center of town are a mix of well-maintained and about to fall down, so it is apparent that there is some economic hardship here. It does look a bit more stable than the ramshackle neighborhoods we saw in Hannibal. However, the tourist-related businesses that drive Hannibal do not exist here...yet. The downtown area is ripe for that type of business.
We returned to the B&B around 4:30 pm. The owner is out of town today (she told us about that yesterday) and no one has been here all day with the place wide open. We sure wouldn't risk that in California. No one told us to lock up the building or anything, although we do have a key to the front door.
At 5:30 pm we walked to El Cimarron for dinner again. There was only one other family dining the entire time we were there, although a few people came in to pick up to-go orders. The food was again very good for the most part. The bill came to $27 and change. Can't beat that.
Back in our room, we settled in to watch 'That Amazing Race', still all alone in the building. The entire street is deserted...no cars parked, except ours, anywhere in sight. The weather is still cold and overcast with occasional rain, but the report is that it should let up tomorrow. Unfortunately, it is supposed to warm up and still be rainy which isn't a good combination for comfort.
Nearly continuous thunder could be heard in the distance beginning around 8:30 pm. The storm briefly reached us, but it was over quickly.
Debbie arrived back around 10:00 pm with profuse apologies for leaving us alone all day. We assured her it wasn't a problem and that we had no trouble finding things to do. She gave us some radishes from her father's garden and a plate of cookies. This woman works way too hard!
Day 14: Monday, April 30 - Drive to St. Louis, MO - Drury Plaza hotel At The Arch
The history of
St. Louis has been heavily influenced by Westward expansion and blues music.
The big "must-see" in this region is the Gateway Arch, while other important
sites include the Museum of Westward Expansion, the St. Louis Cathedral and the
Anheuser-Busch factory tour. The city offers plenty for the whole family.
Children will enjoy the local zoo and the Magic House, while family members will
also want to unwind at Forest Park, home to the World's Fair almost a century
We're up early again, no reason, just woke up. It is foggy and drizzly this morning. The temperature is in the low 50's, expected to reach the 70's later today. A warming trend is forecast beginning tomorrow, but we're fine with the cooler temperatures.
Our breakfast is scheduled for 10:00 am today, but since we were up anyway Debbie brought it at 9:00 am. It is again large and served on a Mickey shaped platter with Mickey waffles surrounded by berries. One ear holds outstanding scrambled eggs with cheese and the other has both bacon and sausage patties. A pitcher of orange juice was also served. By the way, the cookies she brought us last night are delicious!
Debbie had to run off to drive her father to the doctor, so after apologizing again for leaving us alone, and offering to set up a movie for us in the theater (which we declined), she gave us the "Marceline hug" and started to leave. We had to remind her that she hadn't charged us anything yet (nor does she know our last name, address, or anything else except an email address.) She said she'd charge us the lowest rate for the smaller room, which is $95 per night and she'd cover the tax. We gave her $200 even and told her to keep the change when she started to get some.
Was this the cleanest place we've ever stayed? No. But the shortcomings are overcome by the hospitality shown to us. This place is more like staying in someone's home than at a commercial enterprise. The breakfasts are way better than what you'd get at a hotel even if you pay for it.
We set off in the general direction of St. Louis around 10:30 am. Debbie told us to stay as long as we want and since we were left alone again we could have probably stayed all day. But, we have places to go, so we hit the road.
We decided to ignore the GPS and drive south on Main St. It quickly ended in a gravel road, so we knew it wasn't quite what we had in mind as far as the scenic route. There was an escaped steer standing in the roadway, so we did see something cute before turning around.
Once we figured out that we started on the wrong side of the tracks, literally, we got onto the correct highway. This route led us about twenty miles through picturesque farms and cattle ranches to the town of Keytesville. There, we turned left for another twenty or so miles before turning south again until we reached I-70 for the final stretch to St. Louis.
It rained off and on the whole day, but was never more than a sprinkle, so it didn't affect our drive at all. It is cool, but not too cold to be outside.
The only stop we made was at Ozarkland. There are signs along the highway saying we MUST stop here to buy our knives, t-shirts and fireworks (we kid you not.) So, we followed orders and stopped. This is a huge store filled with every manner of tacky trinket and home decor one can imagine. There is an entire room devoted to the sale of fireworks. The prices are indeed a bargain, so we picked up a pack of three Missouri themed t-shirts for $22, a key chain, and a couple of tacky things. Surprisingly enough, the shelves and merchandise aren't dusty at all. The whole place is kept up nicely for what it is. The sales lady greeted us the moment we entered and was very nice as we checked out.
The remaining drive to St. Louis took about an hour. Our approach into the city took us right past Busch Stadium and to the Drury Plaza Hotel. The hotel is directly across the freeway from the Arch. We arrived at the hotel around 3:30 pm.
Dave went to check in while Bill waited in the driveway. The hotel requires guests to check in before entering the parking garage. The hotel is a semi-budget option in the city, but the lobby is opulent with black granite floors, chandeliers and an enormous Louis and Clark bronze set in a water feature. It is almost tacky, but not quite. The hotel serves a complimentary breakfast in the morning and a Kickback snack in the evening. We get three free alcoholic beverages per day and all the soft drinks we want. Popcorn is available in the lobby from 3-10 pm every day. The hotel has an Italian restaurant attached to it. Internet is also included in the rate. We don't recall the exact rate, but it is around $139 for a double queen room with an Arch view.
The assistant general manager checked us in and gave us a top floor (10th) room with a great view. The room is small, but comfortable. Although it is a non-smoking room and there is a sign saying smoking will result in a charge of $250, the room smells of past smoke. It isn't enough to complain about, but it is noticeable. There is some traffic noise from the freeway between the hotel and the park where the Arch is location, but it is just big city noise.
The carpet is filthy and stained, but everything else looks OK. The bathroom appears to have been re-done recently with granite floors and marble tile walls. The air conditioning works great...it was freezing when we walked in.
While we were getting our stuff arranged in the room, we heard a crunch of metal and car parts clattering down the pavement below. We looked out to see that there had been a t-bone crash at the intersection above the freeway. Eventually a fire truck and ambulance arrived, but they drove right by the accident to another incident in the next block. Another truck, ambulance and a policeman on bicycle arrived shortly. The two drivers didn't appear to be injured and they were able to move the wrecked cars to a parking lot out of the way. But, they're not going anywhere judging by the coolant all over the road. Let's hope we avoid a similar fate.
The area where we are located looks very nice and upscale. We plan to visit the Arch tomorrow and possibly walk up to Union Station. Other than that our plans are dependent on our mood and the weather. We'll probably drive out to Forest Park and the Botanical Garden the following day, but no promises.
We went downstairs for dinner at Angelo's Taverna around 6:30 pm. Click to view the Menu. A perky waiter greeted us and took us to a table. We ordered the Broccoli pasta dish with chicken added, fettuccini Alfredo with shrimp, and two small house salads. Everything was fresh and not too heavy on the garlic. The cannoli we had for dessert was OK, but nothing special. The kitchen forgot to add the chicken to the broccoli dish, but the waiter caught it and brought it out on the side. Overall we were happy with the meal and it was a good value for $57.00, before tip.
We stopped at the little shop by the front desk for some bottled water and to pick up a map of downtown St. Louis. We were back in the room and done for the day by 8:30 pm. Click to view the St. Louis Travel Guide.
Day 15: Tuesday, May 1 - St. Louis, MO - Drury Plaza hotel At The Arch
Ugh, rain and 80+ degrees outside. That will make for steamy conditions today.
We were up early enough for the free breakfast in the lobby. It isn't quite as extensive as the one at the Quality Inn, oddly enough, but good enough for being complimentary. There were scrambled eggs, sausage patties, biscuits and gravy, pancakes, and the usual Continental breakfast items. The lady cleaning the tables was very kindly. It wasn't crowded at all.
On the way back to the room we asked the maid's supervisor to change our pillows. The previous guest obviously smoked in this non-smoking room and the pillows reek of smoke. She was nice about it and said they would change them out. We also wanted to make it clear that we are not the ones who smoke because there is a $250 charge for smoking in the room.
We were out walking by 10:30 am. Yes, it is hot and sticky outside, but such is life. The Drury Plaza Hotel is made up of three converted office buildings. Other than the lobby, the interiors are modern, so it must have been gutted. The corridor to our floor appears to have been added on top of the oldest of the buildings, the 1920's International Fur Exchange building. There is a modern office building between us and the Gateway Arch across the interstate. The interstate is located below ground level, so walking to the park is easy.
At the corner is the St. Louis Basilica that sits in the shadow of the arch. The Jefferson National Expansion Memorial, which is the entire park's official name, was built around it. The interior is light and bright. We are the only visitors this morning, so it is very quiet.
The Arch's designer, Eero Saarinen, also planned the leafy park at its base. There are curving ponds at each end of the park surrounded by winding pathways and hundreds of trees. It is all very serene and a stark contrast to the modern stainless steel arch.
The scale of the Gateway Arch is revealed upon stepping out of the canopy of trees. Access to the museum and tramways to the top is down a ramp at the Arch's base. The appearance of the arch changes throughout the day as different light reflects off its smooth surface. Later in the day it almost looks crystalline.
At the entrance below ground, there is an airport-style x-ray and security check, an unfortunate sign of our times. Beyond that is a cavernous space with a counter to purchase tickets, the Museum of Westward Expansion, two shops and two optional movies. There is also a huge bas relief tribute to the builders of the monument.
We purchased tickets for the ride to the top only. They are $7.00 per person with a National Park Annual Pass. The regular price is $10.00 per person. For the tram plus one movie, the price is $14.00. The museum is free of charge.
Our ticket for the tram is for 11:10 am, so we have about fifteen minutes to kill. We used that time to stroll through the museum. It is touted as a "must see" attraction in every guide book we have seen as well as in Tripadvisor reviews. We disagree. It is a hodge podge of hundreds of pictures, plaques and information presented in a confusing way that made us tired just glancing at it. We can't believe anyone these days would take the time to read even a fraction of the information presented. We will admit that it is attractive and the few displays or artifacts there are look nice and clean. In one section there are several very scary animatronic figures that come to life and talk when a visitor walks up to them.
Our tram boarding time came quickly, so we got in the short line. Boarding takes a while because they have to arrange groups to fit five people into the small pods that run to the top in a chain of eight. There is an example pod in the lobby you can try on for size. They are quite small, but the ride only takes four minutes up and three down, so it isn't a problem.
After being handed numbers for which door to stand in front of, we were ushered in to have the usual souvenir photo taken, then let into a small display area about how the arch was constructed to wait for boarding. When the next group of pods arrives at the station, the visitors are led down a set of stairs to the boarding platform facing a set of stepped 4' high stainless steel doors. A short video is shown explaining the process and when the exiting passengers depart, our group squeezes in after them.
The guide books say that the interior of the arch isn't air-conditioned, but this isn't the case. There is air-conditioning in the pods and at the observation level at the top. It is all very modern, clean, and space age considering it was completed in 1967. Obviously it has been recently updated, but the tramway pods to the top are original.
There are glass doors on the pods so we can watch the climb up the interior of the hollow leg of the arch. At the top, we disembarked and climbed up arched stairs to the observation deck. The curve of the arch is very obvious at the top where it is necessary to walk up hill to the small viewing windows.
The top of the arch is 630' above the ground, so the views are spectacular. Click the links to see the amazing views: West Downtown, Northwest, Southwest, West Straight Down, East Mississippi River. The guides were calling for volunteers to fill the remaining seats on the downward trip, so we finished our visit and quickly embarked a pod for the 3-minute trip back down.
Only one of the leg's trams is operating today and the line is short. When we were examining the control panel for the closed side, a ranger told us that it is a nightmare when both trams are depositing loads at the top. We are very glad that our plans always take us to tourist attractions in the off season.
Back at the bottom, we bought some souvenirs and our photo, and then wandered out and toward the Old Courthouse that lines up perfectly with the arch. We know we're in the right place because the courthouse is surrounded by scaffolding. The interior is open for viewing though. This is the courthouse where the Dred Scot cases were heard. The lower level courtroom where his first trial was heard no longer exists, but the Circuit Court upstairs where his freedom was purchased later does. Admission to the Old Courthouse is free of charge.
A ranger took us to the center of the rotunda to view the elaborately painted dome. She gave us some basic information about the exhibits. One side houses exhibits about the early history of St. Louis while the other takes visitors up to the 1940's. The exhibits are minimal, but nicely done. The park service hopes to clean and restore the original tile floors at some point in the future. At the moment they are painted black or damaged. Only a tiny area has been cleaned to reveal the brightly colored tiles.
Upstairs are two restored courtrooms at either end of the building. One is Court No. 4, restored to its original paint colors. The other is the Circuit Court, also restored, through elaborate black leather doors.
Out the west facing doors of the Courthouse is a large plaza with a bronze statue in a fountain that looks like toilet bowl blue. It also smells like it, strangely enough. Looking back toward the arch from here presents the iconic image of St. Louis often seen in brochures. Continuing west from here is an empty water feature in a sunken park area. The planters are being prepared for new annuals.
For the next two blocks, we walked through a beautiful park called Citygarden that opened in 2009. It is a very well kept public park with all manner of contemporary sculptures, waterfalls, and a splash fountain for kids. The landscaping is very attractive and they provide a free guide to the sculptures. This park ends at an elaborate tower for the courthouse.
From here the park and surrounding area is lined with public buildings both modern and from the 1920's. The grand City Hall could use a thorough power wash, but otherwise it looks impressive. Nearby is an abandoned court building and the newly restored Peabody Opera House auditorium.
The closer we got to Union Station, the more frayed at the edges the park became. It isn't quite seedy, but it isn't as nice as the part closer to the center of the city. There is a big Veteran's Memorial here and a tribute to firemen.
The station now houses a Marriott hotel and a half-empty mall fills what was the Midway where the trains lined up. The covered rail yard now protects a food court, koi pond and dozens of large, closed, restaurants. The only restaurants still in business are Landry's Seafood House and a Hard Rock Cafe. Can you say "tourist trap"? The mall itself looks nice enough, but with over half of the shops closed it isn't headed in the right direction. There were only a handful of people wandering around today.
The original Grand Hall of the station is now the lobby of the Marriott. It has been completely restored with stunning stained glass windows, elaborate arches, and elegant light fixtures. It too is deserted.
As we walked to and from the station, everyone we passed on the street asked, "How y'all doin'?" Literally everyone. Can't be much more friendly than that. Nobody tried to rob us or anything. How novel is that?
We walked back along pretty much the same route we took to get to the station because that side of the street is mostly in the shade. It is very hot and we are very tired and sunburned. There is a pleasant cafe overlooking the Citygarden park, so we went there for a late lunch.
We were seated outside next to a big sculpture of a woman who looks like she was pushed into the pool. Our waitress, who could not possibly have been any more friendly and fun, said she makes up stories about it in her mind.
The restaurant is Joe's Chili Bowl and serves breakfast, lunch and dinner, although it looks like a basic lunch place. The waitress said they are supposed to stay open until 10:00 pm, but it is so slow they usually close at 8:00 pm. We're surprised they have any business at all after work hours. There were only a couple of other customers besides us. Click to view the Menu. We ordered a Cheddar Burger and a Chicken Salad Sandwich, both of which were very good. Our waitress talked us into sharing the cheesecake. It was still frozen, but tasted good. When we left the waitress told us that we are her favorite customers that day and she hopes we'll come back soon.
We walked over to Busch Stadium since it is only a couple blocks away. There is a game tonight, but there wasn't much of a frenzy to get ready to open the concession stands. In fact, there was no activity at all except a couple of management types wandering around.
The stadium is attractive, built of red brick with nice cardinal plaques embedded in the walls. There is a collection of bronze sculptures of famous players out in front of the team store. We wandered past the gates overlooking the outfield seating, then back the few remaining blocks to the hotel. We were back in the room cooling off at 4:30 pm.
At 6:00 pm we noticed a huge fountain spurting across the river. After looking it up, we learned it is the Gateway Geyser. It erupts for ten minutes at noon, 3:00 pm and 6:00 pm. The center spray reaches the same height as the Gateway Arch across the river. Saarinen originally planned a park across the river that was never built, so a local group developed the park to prevent further development. It would be nice except there is a casino in the way that looks like an old grain elevator.
At 7:00 pm we decided to go back to Angelo's in the hotel for dinner. We're still kind of gross from being out all day, so we didn't feel like getting it together to go somewhere else. It wasn't busy at all, again. Our waiter was talkative and friendly. Bill ordered a pizza while Dave had the house special ravioli. Both were very good. We're very happy to have Italian food that isn't too heavy on the garlic. Everything is made fresh on the premises. The waiter said we have to try the toasted ravioli that was invented in St. Louis. We'll try that tomorrow if we go back again. We had it in Chicago and it wasn't anything special, but the waiter said they are better here because their ravioli is homemade. Our total bill tonight was only $48.00.
Nothing else happened after dinner, which is a good thing. It is supposed to be even hotter tomorrow. Yikes.
Day 16: Wednesday, May 2 - St. Louis, MO - Drury Plaza hotel At The Arch
It is indeed hotter today, upper 80's to 90 degrees and sunny. It is also very windy, which is a plus under the circumstances.
We are up early again, at 8:00 am. The free breakfast is the same selection as yesterday, fine, but nothing special. The lady cooking pancakes behind the grill is a charmer.
We're driving all over town today to various sites, starting with Forest Park, the site of the St. Louis World's Fair in 1904. The park is west of downtown in almost a straight line from the arch. The drive takes about fifteen minutes. For a big city, the traffic here is minimal. The streets are wide and easy to navigate.
Our first stop is the Jefferson Memorial/Missouri History Museum. This is the only original fair building still standing. It was intended to be permanent unlike the rest of the fair that was meant to be torn down. Another building that was intended to be permanent was the Missouri pavilion, but it burned down during the run of the fair. We'll talk more about that when we get there.
Out front there is an old Loop Trolley and signs explaining a plan to bring back the electric trolleys. We'll believe that when we see it, but the city does have a successful electric train system, so maybe it isn't too farfetched.
Admission to the museum is free of charge. In the original entry hall is a huge statue of Jefferson. The painted vaulted ceiling has been restored to its original grandeur. A new building has been attached to the rear of the building. The original building houses an interesting display about the fair. The screaming school groups were annoying, but we enjoyed it nonetheless. An art installation about surviving hunger (or something like that) occupies the other wing.
The new building houses retrospective exhibits about St. Louis history that is well done and interesting, even for non-museum lovers like us. The exhibits about the past were annoying because they too were overrun with school groups, so we only gave it a cursory look.
Click to view a map of Forest Park. We drove a short distance to the other remaining feature of the fair, the Grand Basin. Originally, there was a Grand Cascade that gushed down the hill beyond, but that was removed. The current basin is a recent reconstruction of the original. The fountains have been recreated to resemble the ones present during the fair. The ornate building at the top of the hill beyond the basin is the St. Louis Art Museum.
We wandered around the perimeter of the lake, stopping to take in the view from the other end. One can almost imagine what it must have been like in 1904 to see this lake lined with elegant buildings and lined with electric lights. What a site it must have been. Off the sides of the basin are picturesque canals that would have been lined with exotic pavilions. What are left are a beautifully manicured public park, golf courses, and jogging paths.
After walking back to the starting point, we drove around to the Art Museum that we found teeming with several school groups. We had no intention of taking the time to visit the museum anyway, but if we had, the screaming would have changed our mind. There is a modern addition behind the old building in front. They are currently constructing another addition off to one side.
Next, we stopped at the base of the World's Fair Pavilion. It stands at the top of a hill where the Missouri Pavilion was located until it burned during the run of the fair. It was intended to be permanent, but no such luck. The pavilion was added at the request of the city after the fair ended and opened in 1908. It was completely restored recently. The original purpose was for food vending to park goers and a gathering place. The interior is a big open space that can be used to host parties and events. Workers were busily setting up a tent in the parking lot behind. The pavilion was also intended to provide a spectacular view over the newly developed park.
Our next stop was for a photo of the ornate Pagoda, another original feature that has been restored. It sits on an island in front of the Municipal Theater.
After driving through the rest of the park, we drove across town to the Missouri Botanical Garden. Click to view a map of the garden. This garden is known as one of the two greatest botanical gardens in the country. It is located in a beautiful old part of St. Louis known as the Garden District, which is full of old mansions and adjacent to Tower Grove Park where we will go later today.
The entry driveway sports an enormous Chinese dragon for an upcoming event. Admission to the garden is only $8.00 per person, a wonderful bargain for such an enormous attraction. Visitors start from the upper level of a modern building where a huge glass sculpture hangs overhead. We exited the building onto a plaza with a fountain in the center.
Turning to the left, the first thing we see is the original brick greenhouse. Behind the greenhouse are several interesting water features. One of them is a simple basin with bubbles churning the water. Next to it is a tall metal tube with water running down the sides. Next up is a Moroccan garden with an elaborate traditional garden and fountain in the center.
Continuing into the garden, we came across a huge Bell Tree. We would like to create something like this at home. It is a beautiful piece of art and a natural musical instrument, too. Beyond is a central garden surrounded by a white fence. The entry gates sprout whimsical yellow glass hair.
A lily pond is being transformed for the Chinese event, so it is empty. Down the center is an enormous dragon being built on a metal framework. Upon closer inspection we can see that it is made up entirely of Chinese porcelain plates, teacups and spoons.
Serene pathways wind further into the garden leading to the garden's original estate home, a stone gatekeeper's house, an old museum, and other ornate old structures. Formal gardens grace one side of the mansion that was the center of the original estate where the garden began.
Wandering on, we detoured a bit to check out the rose garden, followed a path through the shade garden, and ended up at the enormous Japanese garden with a beautiful lake as its centerpiece. The lake is full of gigantic koi. We walked the tranquil path all the way around the lake.
Leaving the Japanese garden leads to home-oriented gardens. There is a vegetable garden demonstrating how to use edible plants in the landscape, a semi-circular shade structure with all sorts of shade plants along the edge. This path winds past several water features with bronze geese, beavers and other creatures. There is a children's garden nearby with a faux western town for them to climb around on.
We stopped in a building where they demonstrate how to use indoor plants. We bought some drinks at the cafe and kept walking toward the main attraction, the enormous Climatron.
The Climatron is a huge geodesic greenhouse where tropical plants tower overhead. Numerous waterfalls and streams add to the realism. The pathway winds downward, passing exotic plants such as water lettuce and bromeliads. An attached Temperate House showcases plants from warmer and drier climates in a beautiful setting of fountains and other decorative elements.
Back at the entry building, we stopped at the Sassafras Cafe for a late lunch. Click to the view the Menu. The cafe is a quick service restaurant, but they deliver your food to the table after you order at the counter. We had the Quiche with a salad, and the Chicken Salad Sandwich. Both were very good and well worth eating. The portions are large and filling. Every staff person was very pleasant. The dining room is tranquil and attractive. Outdoor seating is available, but it is too hot today for that.
This botanical garden is without a doubt the best one we have ever seen. Every inch of it is beautifully manicured. The gardens are well planned and designed to perfection. It is a must-see if ever there was one.
After picking up a souvenir in the large store, we left the garden for a stop at some funky garden-oriented shops on the corner. The proprietors of both shops were extremely friendly. We wish we live closer because the prices for some beautiful big planters were very cheap. Unfortunately, they're too big to haul home with us or we would have picked some up to go.
At this point, it is coming up to 4:00 pm, so we decided to drive through the area to look at the beautiful old homes. Some of them are run down, but most are still elegant and nicely maintained. Nearby is the elegant Tower Grove Park. One can almost imagine Victorian couples strolling along the pathways and riding along the roads in horse-drawn carriages. Ornate pavilions dot the landscape, watched over by bronze statues on pedestals. A bunch of kids were enjoying splashing in the fountain in front of one of the buildings.
The park is most famous for a large fountain adorned with the limestone remains of a burned downtown building. The designer was intrigued by the shapes of the ruin and brought them to the park as the backdrop for a fountain. The original 1857 iron fountain has been restored and is still running in the middle of the large pond. Beautiful mansions line the perimeter of the park and remain as impressive today as they were back in the early 1900's.
We're not sure what the hours are for the Busch Brewery tour, so we set the GPS to take us there to check. We drove through some old neighborhoods of old duplexes, townhouses and mansions. Although a bit rundown, it isn't scary or dangerous...or we didn't feel it is. We stopped for gas and weren't murdered or even intimidated, so we're ahead of the game.
The brewery tours end at 4:00 pm, so we're out of luck. No matter, it was intended as a filler on our itinerary anyway. We ignored the GPS and drove through the enormous brewery complex. It stretches for several square blocks and includes the old brick brewery buildings as well as new buildings across the road.
The street the brewery is on leads directly back to the hotel, so we were back home in no time. There is another ballgame tonight, so we barely missed the arriving traffic. Parking lots are already sending guys with flags into the street to attract customers.
A couple in the elevator with us asked if we are going to the game. When we said we are from out of town and just passing through, they said, "Thank you for visiting our state!" We told you people around here are nice.
We arrived back in our room around 5:00 pm. We're worn out!
Not all that hungry, we decided to take advantage of the hotel's Kickback snack at 6:30 pm. They're not kidding when they say you can make a meal of it! They have baked potatoes with sour cream and butter, hot dogs, spicy chicken bites, salad, and a nacho bar with taco meat and beans in addition to cheese sauce. Each guest can have up to three free alcoholic beverages per night and that includes mixed drinks, wine and beer. Soft drinks are free all day, as is popcorn. We easily filled up on the freebies, so there's no need to bother with dinner tonight.
The final verdict on the Drury Plaza Hotel: What a deal! $139 for an arch view room on the highest floor, free food and drinks morning and night, free internet and friendly staff. Our room was comfortable and well insulated. We heard nothing from rooms on either side of us. There is some traffic noise typical of any big city hotel, but other than that it is quiet. The only negatives are the dirty carpet and a non-smoking room that smells of smoke. We'd definitely choose this hotel again if we are in St. Louis.
Day 17: Thursday, May 3 - Drive to Branson, MO - Marriott's Willow Ridge Lodge
Don't let the small-town, rural surroundings fool you...there's a side of
Branson that evokes Las Vegas without the casinos. Entertainment is nonstop
on The Strip, a seven-mile stretch of live music and comedy shows, numerous
restaurants, theme parks, shopping outlets and myriad hotels. You might catch
Barbara Mandrell, Wayne Newton or Glen Campbell, all regulars at what some folks
call the Live Music Capital of the World, where over 100 music and comedy shows
run daily in over 53 theaters. But there's another side to this warm, hospitable
town tucked into the foothills of the Ozarks. It's a paradise for outdoor
recreation. The rolling hills offer 200 miles of trails for hiking, horseback
riding and biking, and three scenic lakes are havens for fishing and water
sports. For less strenuous water activities, hop aboard one of the many lake
cruises. The kids won't want to leave Silver Dollar City, where thrilling rides
are combined with a glimpse into turn-of-the-century Ozark life. You won't be
alone on a weekend visit to modern-day Branson...the natural attractions and
live entertainment draw 8.4 million tourists a year.
Looks like it will be another scorcher today. Not a cloud in the sky and it is already warm outside at 8:00 am.
Breakfast this morning was crowded, but the lobby is huge and there is plenty of seating. Food selection is exactly the same each day. There was another baseball game yesterday, so the hotel is full of friendly fans. We had to pretend twice that we even knew there was a game.
As for St. Louis as a destination, we liked it. No problems, the city is clean and the people are very friendly. We saw all of the sites we intended to see in the two full days of touring, so we're glad we cut one day off of our original plan. We could have found something to fill the extra day, but it is better used elsewhere down the road. If we are passing through here again, we'd be glad to stay again. We'll certainly be adding Drury Hotels to our short list of preferred chains.
We're prepared to set off toward Branson around 10:00 am. We have a stop planned at the Fantastic Caverns attraction outside of Branson.
After driving for a short distance, we started seeing billboards every mile for Meramec Caverns. When the turn-off came in about twenty miles, off we went in search of another tacky roadside attraction.
The cavern is three miles from the highway on a scenic country road lined with ramshackle houses. There are several truly tacky attractions right at the intersection, but they are closed.
The cavern is a privately owned show cavern. There is a large campground and a well-maintained motel adjacent to it. Of course, there is a large gift shop, cafe, and a fudge shop nearby. We wandered into the visitor center, passing a Jesse James statue out front. Apparently every cave like this was a Jesse James hideout.
We had to go into the cave to buy tickets for the tour ($21.95 per person). The ticket desk is past a bunch of display cases and various artifacts they say are authentic finds from the cave and Jesse James bank robbery in the area. Inside the cave it is in the 60's, so very chilly compared to the 90's outside. We had to wait about twenty minutes for the next tour, so we browsed the gift shop until the announcement to meet for the tour.
We were told to wait by the moonshiner's reconstructed cabin under a hanging neon sign for the cave. While a claim is made that the shack is authentic and moved here from the local forest, it looks too new to be authentic. The guide was pleasant and gave interesting information about the cave. There were only five other people on the tour, one of whom could barely walk and held up the tour many times while the guide waited for her to catch up.
The first two rooms are called The Ballroom because in the 1920's local people held dances here to escape the summer heat. It is still used occasionally for group events, but not very often these days. After walking a ways into the cave via a smooth paved pathway, we came upon the location of the Jesse James hideout. Originally it would have been necessary to swim under water to reach this point, but the water has since been drained.
Various features hang from the ceiling and walls throughout the cave. A shallow river of 98% pure water flows through the entire cave and drains into the river out front. The pathway follows the river through the cave. At one point an optical illusion makes the water look very deep, but it is only a few inches in reality.
A spectacular reflection on a shallow lake is the highlight. It is adjacent to a huge feature made of onyx that is still growing. It is the biggest known example of this type of feature in the U.S. The guide changes the colors of the lights in the reflective pond, ending with every color of the rainbow.
While there are too many features to describe here, one of the most interesting is in what is called the Wine Room. This room was under water for eons. Grape-shaped nodules line the walls below the old water line. This type of feature can only be formed below the water. At some point, an earthquake caused the water to drain. In the center of the room is a table-like deposit that appears to have wine bottles and glasses on the top. They are all natural phenomena.
The grand finale of the cave is a five story tall, 75 million year old drapery feature. As if it isn't spectacular enough on its own, the guide put on a light show while Kate Smith sang 'God Bless America'. At the end an American flag is projected on the drapery. This room is known as The Theater, by the way.
The tour lasted over an hour, so it was lunch time when we were done. We browsed the shop again, bought some tacky souvenirs, and bought a hot dog, mac & cheese (Kraft!), and some toasted ravioli at the cafe. The food was fine for what it is, and very reasonably priced.
Back on the road, we continued south until we saw a sign advertising the World's Largest Gift Shop, so we turned off the highway yet again. We didn't buy anything, but the store was too tempting to just drive by.
Our planned stop is still two hours driving time away, so we weren't sure whether we'd make it in time, assuming it closes at 5:00 pm. Eventually, one of the billboards for it, that started popping up at the 120 mile mark, said they are open until 8:00 pm, so we knew we'd be there by then.
Fantastic Caverns is another privately owned show cave that was discovered, but not revealed, during the Civil War. After the war, the owner advertised for someone to explore the cave and ten women volunteered. Their signatures are inside the cave and part of the tour.
The cavern is several miles down narrow county roads away from the highway. It is very scenic and more upscale than the surroundings of the previous cavern. We passed several pastoral scenes along the way. We're sure the neighbors don't appreciate the tourists looking for the cave, but it probably predates most of them.
We arrived at around 4:45 pm and went into the deserted visitor center. An extremely helpful man sold us tickets for the tour in fifteen minutes ($22.95 per person) and proceeded to tell us what to do in Branson, provide us with maps and brochures for the shows he considers the best (all religion oriented), and then to explain how to best enjoy Silver Dollar City that he described as a "must see". He insisted we go tomorrow and not on Saturday, which is already our plan. He also said to expect to spend the entire day there, not just a few hours, also something we anticipated.
What sets this cave apart is that the tours are conducted by jeeps that pull long flatbed trailers. In our case, we're the only guests on the tour, so the guide asked us to sit in the back of the jeep with him. He was very nice and friendly. Outside the entrance to the cave, he demonstrated the old steam powered generator that was used to make electricity to power the lights in the cave. The entrance is barely high enough to admit the vehicles. Several times during the tour we were asked to duck because the ceiling barely clears the top of the vehicle.
Inside the entrance, the remnants of a mushroom farm used by the original owner is still visible. This cave doesn't make any claims of Jesse James or anything else weird except it was once used as a speakeasy complete with nightclub and casino.
The tour continues deeper into the cavern, stopping at columns, dripping features, elaborate forms and room after room of spectacular formations. One large room features a huge onyx mound with elaborate drapery formations adjacent. Like the previous cave, what we've included here is only a small portion of what we saw during the hour long tour. This one comes complete with a photo with the guide available at the end for $10. We felt it was worth the price and we're glad we made the effort.
We made only one stop at the Kum & Go (we kid you not) where we Kam & Went after filling up the car with gasoline.
After picking up some souvenirs, as usual, we hit the road and immediately got lost because we ignored the GPS instructions. We quickly realized our error and headed back in the right direction. The drive to Branson from the cave is about an hour.
We arrived in Branson around 6:30 pm, which is very late for us. The tornado damage is still evident along the strip. Several motels are virtually destroyed, as is a strip mall and a couple of fast food outlets. Buildings immediately adjacent to the destruction are untouched. Then, closer to our destination, is a Wal-mart with a grocery store in the same strip. The grocery store was almost destroyed, but the Wal-mart re-opened within a week and looks undamaged.
Shortly, we arrived at Marriott's Willow Ridge Lodge, which is a time-share property. It is also incomplete. The plan we were given shows ten buildings, but only three and the lobby building were completed. The elaborate sales office near the street is closed and dark with no sign of any activity. What they have completed is very nice with beautiful grounds and lots of amenities.
No other guests were present in the lobby when we arrived. Both women at the desk were engaged on the telephone, but they acknowledged us immediately. We were checked in promptly and given a ton of information on the surrounding area, a list of Resort Activities, and told that a movie just started in the theater if we want to watch it. There is a small convenience store that is open 24/7. A concierge is available from 10-5 to book show tickets and dinner reservations. The guy at the cave told us that tickets are always available, as are hotel rooms, so there is no need to book in advance. There was no mention of the time share aspect of the property other than to tell us that we get free maid service instead of having to pay a fee for it because we are not owners.
We're in a building away from the lobby, which is fine. Our room is on the 4th floor (of 5). There are a lot of cars in the parking lots, but the resort doesn't appear to be very busy. The buildings are very nice, but it is odd that they have corridors open to the outside, especially here in Branson where the weather can be harsh. Speaking of weather, it is still 80 degrees at 8:00 pm.
We have a one bedroom "villa". It has a full kitchen stocked with everything a person needs to settle in, a huge bathroom, living/dining room, and separate bedroom with a king bed. The decor is very nice and everything looks new. A spacious balcony overlooks the space where additional buildings are supposed to be built. This enormous room only cost $138.00 a night.
After dropping our stuff in the room, we went looking for food at a local BBQ place the front desk recommended. There are a ton of chain restaurants and bad family eateries along the entertainment corridor, but the woman at the desk said Danna's BBQ is the best. We arrived just before 8:00 pm when they close, but they were extremely gracious and nice to us. We ordered at the counter and the food was delivered by a waitress who constantly checked back to be sure everything is good. Click here to view the Menu. The food was amazing and cost less than $20!
Our next task is to find a grocery store. The one nearest the hotel is the one that was destroyed in the tornado, so we had to drive about four miles across town to find one. However, find it we did and stocked up on breakfast food. Time shares pretty much leave you to your own devices, so we have to provide our own breakfast or go out, which isn't a great idea. The store was very nice and we had no problem getting things we like (or can eat.)
We didn't use the GPS to get back to the hotel, so we got lost. It is VERY dark out here at night, so we had to give up and hook up the GPS again. We're glad we did because we were headed in the wrong direction. Yes, we were following a map and we're usually good at that, but not tonight.
We made it back to the room at 9:00 pm where we quickly crashed for the night. Whew, that was a long day! We had to call the front desk because the AT&T internet service wouldn't let us sign up. It is free of charge, but guests still have to log in. Rather than making us call Tech Support ourselves, the front deck called them and made the guy help us. He did, but only after claiming there isn't a problem and it is our fault. That must be why there was someone calling the front desk to complain about the same thing when we arrived. We must have jinxed everyone upon our arrival. Anyway, he did fix it and the front desk went beyond the call of duty to help. She even offered the concierge computer if we had something important we had to do.
Click to view a map of Branson.
Day 18: Friday, May 4 - Branson, MO - Marriott's Willow Ridge Lodge
It was foggy early this morning, but the sun soon broke through and heated things up to the high 80's. We prepared breakfast with the supplies purchased last night, then got ready for our day at Silver Dollar City.
Click to view a map of Silver Dollar City. The theme park is located about fifteen minutes outside of Branson in a scenic forest among rolling hills. When we arrived it looked like it might be a very crowded today, but ultimately it wasn't bad at all. The parking is in remote lots, but trams came every five minutes, so the wait is minimal and we were at the main entrance by 11:00 am.
We purchased tickets from a kindly older woman and went to the main gate. The price for a single day ticket is $56.00, which is a bit steep for a park of this size, but not outrageous. The park is having a World Fest event this year, so it is decked out in national flags and one of the large food locations is serving ethnic food from around the world. It was packed all day. The food we saw looked very good and is served in very generous portions.
If we got jobs here, we'd be considered young whippersnappers for sure. That average age of the staff has to be above sixty, no exaggeration. That's not a negative since all of them are extraordinarily friendly and helpful. Twice when we stopped to consult the park map, someone came up immediately and asked if we needed help finding something.
The park is a mix of craft demonstrations, shops selling items made on the premises, a huge variety of food, and about 20 rides. The park claims 30 rides and attractions, but that count includes a replica church and a barnyard, which is a bit of a stretch. We're surprised that old people make up such a large percentage of park visitors. We'd guess that senior citizens make up at least half of those in attendance today. It is busy, but the wait for any attraction didn't exceed fifteen minutes.
Rides depend heavily on getting wet, which is something we don't find at all appealing, no matter how hot is gets. The first one we came across is the American Plunge, a log ride. We watched the logs come down the final drop and every rider was drenched. Nearby is a raft ride with a similar end result. We passed on both.
A ride we figured would be more our speed is Fire-in-the-Hole. The wait was minimal and it is described as a "unique dark ride." Sounds reasonable. It is a tame roller coaster that is indoors. It glides past humorous scenes having something to do with things bursting into flames. After the train spirals to the top level, it races down some tame drops until the climactic ending where there is a big burst of faux flame followed by, you guessed it, a dousing with water. We weren't dripping, just damp, so it was OK.
There is a huge, well designed water play area for kids called Geyser Gulch. In the same area is a Tom Sawyer themed ride where guests ride a raft and spray onlookers with water while the onlookers fire back at them. The kids seemed to love it and it is well done for what it is.
Nearby is a ride called the Giant Swing that is a basic carnival ride, but very well themed in a big red barn. All of the rides are second in theme only to Disney-created rides. The entire park is spotlessly clean, the employees are beyond friendly and nice, the food prices don't induce heart attacks (although some of the food might), and the overall atmosphere is charming.
Another water-themed ride is the Flooded Mine. This is a slow moving boat ride through a prison mine (???). The boats are equipped with laser guns and riders shoot at targets causing various actions to take place. The score is displayed on the barrel of the gun. It is very cute and we didn't get wet this time.
One weird thing about the park is that the attraction entrances are so well hidden that we often couldn't find them even when we were standing a few feet away. The name of the Flooded Mine and Fire-in-the-Hole rides weren't displayed anywhere. Other rides, particularly the three big roller coasters, have elaborate signs, but they are still hidden behind other buildings.
There are three big coasters, two of which feature inversions. The third is a traditional steel roller coaster that is reasonable enough for us to ride, which we did. The wait was less than five minutes. We witnessed the safety rules being strictly followed by the staff. All-clear signals were checked and checked again. There is no shortage of staff on the ride platform which is always a sign of a well-managed park. We were impressed and it is hard to wow a Disney boy.
We think it is pretty ballsy to theme a roller coaster with a twisted broken track and a train crashed through the roof of the station! While we were waiting to watch it launch, the ride broke down, so we never did see it in operation.
There is a newer area themed to an Exposition that is very well done. It features standard carnival rides, but they are themed extensively and the entire area is designed with a coherent theme. The employee uniforms throughout the park are equal in quality and variety to Disney's although there isn't as much variance in theme overall.
We bought some drinks and sat on a wall to rest. A photographer, who could have passed for Ma Kettle without any additional make up, came up and insisted that we pose for several photos. We did so and she told the people sitting next to us that we are their free entertainment for the day. Dave said it isn't free and they owe us $10.00.
After looking through some shops and purchasing some made-on-site glass wind chimes, we realized we hadn't eaten all day. There are almost an overwhelming number of choices for food here. The most amazing thing is that all of the restaurants and carts are open even though it isn't a capacity day. At a Disney park the less popular shops and restaurants are closed at the slightest hint it might not be busy that day. Everything was operating here today.
We chose one of the unique dining options, a skillet meal. The park offers several locations selling this type of meal, each with a different set of ingredients. We ordered one serving of the Family Feud. It consists of corn, squash, onions, peppers, chicken and (we think) cornbread, cooked in a giant skillet. The serving size is 16 ounces, so it is plenty for two people for lunch. It costs only $8.99 and is made of fresh ingredients. Other options like fresh peaches or strawberries over whipped cream looked tasty. Of course, they also serve gigantic funnel cakes and fried potatoes on a stick (looks better than it sounds!) There really is something for everyone and all of the food we saw is cooked fresh, not packaged and re-heated. Yes, we're impressed!
Shortly after we finished eating and wandering around the park again, it began to pour rain. This prompted us to return to the glass shop to pick up our earlier purchase (other shops will send purchases to the front gate for pick-up). It was 4:00 pm at this point and we've seen and ridden everything we're interested in, so we headed toward the main gate.
We found some souvenirs to buy, at reasonable prices. T-shirts are two for $20, an unheard of bargain at a theme park. We liked a couple of the photos taken of us earlier, so we bought those on a thumb drive for $34.95, including the drive. This also included the right to re-publish the photos, which is something we've never heard of. Are they planning to sue people for posting their photos on Facebook or what?
After making our purchases from a kindly, and extremely old, woman, we wandered into the flow of people moving toward the exit. Because it had been raining, they quickly swapped out the regular parking lot trams for full-sized buses. The entire thing was very well organized with no waiting whatsoever. As soon as the rain stopped, the busses disappeared and the trams returned to service.
We drove the short distance back to town, stopped at a tacky garden decor shop along the road. We found some cute handmade wood items to take home. The shopkeeper was extremely friendly. He told us the items are made by a 95 year old man in Wisconsin who drives down in an RV with his 78 year old girlfriend every summer. Yikes! The pink gorilla in the parking lot pretty much sums this place up.
While the economy hasn't affected Branson quite as badly as some other places we've seen, there are at least three large theaters closed and for sale. There a several motels that look permanently closed, as well, not including the ones damaged by the recent tornado.
We went looking for some of Branson's more garish enterprises and came across the Waltzing Waters theater, the "World's Largest Toy Museum", the Hollywood Wax Museum complete with a Mt. Rushmore type facade, and a giant rooster advertising a chicken dinner restaurant. These places are interspersed with go-kart tracks, water parks, tacky shops, fast food places, restaurants and theaters, all along a two lane country road with no traffic lights. You can see a replica of the Titanic complete with iceberg, huge busts of country singers, and even Dolly Parton's Dixie Stampede dinner show. It is like a Christian version of Las Vegas.
The tornado damage hop scotches along the entertainment strip all the way down to the river at Branson Landing where the two new Hilton hotels are located. The largest of those is still closed. We'll drive down there tomorrow and check it out. There are several motels that were almost completely destroyed, huge signs bent to the ground, a devastated strip mall, flattened fast food places, and the damaged Branson "Mal" that is missing an "L" from its sign. This is the location of a Wal-mart that has re-opened, and a grocery store that has not. One motel is missing part of its top floor. However, right next door to these places you'll see a business that is totally untouched.
Traffic gets very annoying before show times, so we went back to the hotel just before 6:00 pm. After cleaning up and cooling down, we rested for an hour until going out to dinner. There is a recommended Italian restaurant nearby, so we went there.
Florentina's is a busy, casual Italian place known for homemade food. Or so the waiter told us at least twenty times. He must have told us at least five times that the Italian dressing on the house salad is homemade. That's fine, but how hard can it be to make a vinaigrette? And, who can tell what it tastes like when there is only a teaspoon of it on a salad of bagged iceberg lettuce...that is starting to turn brown. It wasn't a good start. The bread, also touted as homemade, definitely is not. It might be baked there, but it tasted exactly like Pillsbury bread with some herbs sprinkled on it. Click to view the Menu.
Our entrees were much better than the salads, thank goodness. The Almondine fish dish was very good and the Spaghetti Cucina was outstanding. The lemon cake for dessert was light and fresh tasting. We believe it is made in house. Our total bill came to $47.00, which is reasonable for what we got. Our waiter was nice, but a bit phony. He only stood out because everyone else so far has been so genuinely nice.
We were back in our room with the air conditioning on full blast by 8:30 pm.
As you know, we were impressed with the Drury Plaza Hotel in St. Louis. We got an email survey from Drury after we departed. Dave reported that the room smelled like smoke when we arrived. It wasn't a complaint, just mentioned it and said housekeeping had quickly changed the bedding when we asked. Today we got a personal email from the manager of the hotel apologizing profusely for the smoke smell and assuring us that he will be sure it doesn't happen to anyone else. That's amazing.
Day 19: Saturday, May 5 - Branson, MO - Marriott's Willow Ridge Lodge
It is hot and humid again, no big surprise there. We should probably get used to heat because the direction we're headed isn't known for cool weather. We're planning an easy day today just driving around looking at the rest of Branson. We're doing laundry since our room has its own washer and dryer. How convenient is that?
By the way, we finally received a refund from theWit in Chicago for just over $400 due to the all-day construction noise on Saturday. That is very nice, but it wasn't posted until we answered a survey and mentioned that we had been promised a refund, but didn't get it. It is too bad that the manager didn't follow through on his own because it was an unexpected offer that was sort of negated by requiring follow-up on our part.
Before leaving the hotel this morning, we wandered over to the pool area to check it out. It is drained and being power washed for the season, but it looks nice. The grounds are pleasant with BBQ grills around, shuffleboard, nice places to sit, and other resort amenities. We're not tempted to buy a timeshare here, but this is a very nice place to just chill out if you are ever in the area. It is an amazing value even for Branson.
We set out toward old downtown Branson at 11:00 am. The traffic backs up there because the light is so short, so it takes a while to get down to the Branson Landing area.
Branson Landing is a fairly new development along the White River below downtown Branson. There is a convention center across the street with a modern high rise Hilton hotel that was severely damaged in the tornado. This Hilton remains closed and is surrounded by chain link fencing. The convention center attached to it looks to be in good shape. The station for the Branson Scenic Railroad is next to the Hilton and is open for business.
Our first destination is at the far south end of the mall, Bass Pro Shops. These enormous sporting goods stores are famous for their elaborately themed displays. This one isn't quite as complicated as the originals, but it still has a huge display at one end featuring several waterfalls, fake animals and a giant aquarium full of huge fish. Considering how nice the store is, the prices are surprisingly reasonable. We picked up some cute items, plus a few souvenirs and hats. The staff is friendly and helpful.
We took our stuff back to the car, which is WAY at the end of the nearly full lot. Then we walked back toward Branson Landing along the riverfront walk. There is another Hilton hotel in the center of the mall that is part hotel and part condominiums. We would have stayed here, but one of the buildings was damaged by the tornado, so they jacked the prices up to outrageous levels. There is no way anyone should pay $350 a night in Branson of all places. There must be at least 5,000 empty hotel rooms in this city at any given time. Now that we've actually been here, we much prefer the location of the Marriott where we are now.
The centerpiece of the mall is a dancing fountain that puts on a show every 30 minutes. In the meantime it sprays water in varying patterns to entertain shoppers. It is backed by large pipes that blow fire during the shows. At night there is a more elaborate show. The music is very loud and must be annoying for anyone living in the adjacent condominiums.
The mall is almost completely full of upscale shops. Sitting there waiting for the fountain show, we remarked that it doesn't feel like we're in Branson at all. Whether that is a good thing or not is subject to interpretation. We're guessing that in a year or two, this mall will be half empty like all the rest. There are a lot of people wandering around today, but that's all they are doing. The stores didn't appear to be doing much business, except for the 5 & 10 cent store.
Every major chain restaurant is represented here also and they did appear to be fairly busy at lunchtime. Whether it is only like this on Saturday, we don't know. Branson Landing is away from the entertainment venues and hotels, other than the Hiltons, so you'd have to be going here as your destination. In any case, it is an attractive mall.
At the south end of the mall, tornado damage is still evident. All of the debris has been cleared away, but most of the stores are missing their awnings and part of the Hilton is bashed in at the roofline. Several of the iron balcony railings are twisted or missing and gashes from flying debris are visible in the stucco.
We walked back to our car and continued our scenic drive south to a scenic overlook. From here we can see the White River as it flows past new developments of condos and time shares. Before the Table Rock Dam was built nearby, this area was subject to frequent flooding.
Our next stop is at the dam itself. There is a new Visitor Center there and tours are offered to American citizens only (for security reasons). We arrived at 1:45 pm, which is too late to register for the last tour at 2:00 pm. The tours are operated by the same company that owns Silver Dollar City and Ride the Ducks. There are displays in the visitor center that push the benefits of hydroelectric power, as usual for these places. We watched a 20-minute movie about the building of the dam, and then went outside to the viewing deck for, what else, the view.
That was our last planned stop for today. Remember, we're taking it easy! So, we drove back north toward the hotel, stopping for more kitschy photos of the Titanic Museum and a dinosaur at the miniature golf course adjacent to the Marriott. There is another shuttered theater on the hill near us. It is HUGE! How anyone thought they could fill all of these seats on a daily basis even in good times is beyond comprehension. Many of the venues are larger than what you'll find in Las Vegas.
We arrived back at the hotel at 3:30 pm, where we stayed until we mustered the energy to go out looking for food again.
Our dinner choice for tonight is the Lonestar Steakhouse a few blocks from the hotel. We arrived at 6:30 pm and only had to wait about five minutes. When we left the lobby was packed with people waiting for a table, so we timed it perfectly. Click to view the Menu. We ordered the Texas Trio and the Filet with dinner salads and a baked sweet potato as our sides. Everything was outstanding. The steaks were definitely the best part, but everything was above average and large portions. Service was prompt and friendly. We'd definitely go back. The bill was $55.00 before tip including one cocktail.
We're finishing up our laundry in preparation for our departure tomorrow morning. Check out time here is 10:00 am, so we have to be more efficient than usual.
Day 20: Sunday, May 6 - Drive to Fort Smith, AR - Courtyard by Marriott
Nestled in the Arkansas River Valley, between the Ozark and Ouachita Mountains;
Arkansas’s second largest city,
Fort Smith, rests gently
on the banks of the Arkansas River at the intersection of interstates 40 and
540. When you visit, you’ll find that Fort Smith’s past is in its future.
We uniquely combine the history of the “Old West” with the gentle charm of the
antebellum “Old South,” offering travelers of all ages glimpses into its
distinctive past through restorations, attractions, museums and festivals that
make our history fun and exciting.
We're told the heat wave is ending, but it is still very hot today with not a cloud in the sky. It is supposed to rain later today and bring in cooler temperatures. We can only hope.
We have to be out of here by 10:00 am, so we're up early. The drive to our next stop shouldn't take long, so we might have another easy day unless we spot a tacky roadside attraction or two on the way.
The final verdict on Marriott's Willow Ridge Lodge: Comfortable. And, what a deal this place is. It is like an apartment, nicely decorated, full kitchen, washer/dryer, and daily maid service. We only dealt with the staff at check-in/out, but they were extremely helpful and nice. We'd definitely stay here again. We only got one marketing call to buy a time share and she wasn't pushy at all. We said we're not interested and she said, "OK, thanks."
As for Branson, well, it is Branson. We enjoyed our time here, but there probably isn't any reason to come back. It isn't a bad place to go just to get away and it is generally very inexpensive. The people are very nice and they'll actually stop and let you out into traffic if you're waiting at a driveway. On the other hand, there is a LOT of churches here. Whether that is good or sinister is for you to decide.
The drive to Fort Smith takes a little over two hours through the picturesque Ozark Mountains. The "mountains" are more like hills to us. The elevation never went over 1,400 feet, but in these parts that's pretty high. For the most part, the hills are thickly forested with occasional cow pastures and small farms.
We stopped in a small town with one street lined with old stone buildings. The only shop of interest is a chainsaw woodcarving shop with some whimsical characters out front. Considering how remote the town is on a two-lane road, the shop has a steady stream of visitors. The prices for the carvings are high though, upwards of $500. The hillbilly owner was very jovial.
During the drive the temperature stayed around 80 degrees, but it heated up quickly as we entered Fort Smith. The top temperature we experienced today was 90.
We arrived at the hotel at 1:15 pm. We expected to be too early to check in, which we understand. However, the reaction of the front desk woman was uncalled for. No one was at the desk when we walked into the totally empty lobby. After a few minutes, she yelled from the restaurant, "Do you need something?" Gee, ya think? Dave nicely replied, "We have a reservation." Her reaction was to roll her eyes and say, "95 people just checked out all at once, so I doubt you can check in now." OK, fine, but the correct thing to say is, "I'm so sorry, but the rooms aren't ready yet. Check in time is 3:00 pm, but we'll do our best to get your room ready early." Instead, she huffily went behind the desk and poked at the computer, never making eye contact. Then she radioed housekeeping, which ignored her request for a room status update.
The entire time, she didn't speak to us, apologize or in any way act as though she cared at all. This kind of attitude is very unusual for a Marriott hotel. Eventually, she got a response from housekeeping and said it would be about 30 minutes. Dave said, "OK, we'll come back later." No response. We left to go find some lunch.
We got lost slightly and took a detour across the river into Oklahoma, but that is less than a mile away. Back on track, we stopped at Miss Laura's Social Club, the only remaining bordello from an entire street of them. It is now the Fort Smith visitor center. The building is more or less original, but it was moved here from its original location nearby, then it was almost destroyed by a tornado before being restored.
In the foyer, we were sort of greeted by two dotty old volunteers, one of whom plopped herself down and started to read a newspaper. The other one asked if we wanted a tour, "but you can't go upstairs until Monday because they keep it locked on the weekends." OK, whatever. Another tourist arrived and joined the "tour", which mostly consisted of being lead around while she pointed out that everything in the house is a reproduction. It was charming in its own way, but very odd. She placed stickers on us for no apparent reason, then insisted we put on little sheriff badges. At the end of the spiel, women get a certificate of health so they can continue plying their trade. She asked if we want one for a friend, but we told her we don't know any healthy women. She wasn't amused.
We were offered some brochures that, "I think are about Oklahoma or something. Maybe Arkansas or whatever." She also showed us a frame full of pictures of local attractions, "Most of which are closed." Hand to God, we are not making this up. At least it is free of charge. She gave us a map of the downtown area and sent us on our way.
Back outside, we drove past some remaining old buildings and a weird kiddy park next to a diner. Don't ask. The downtown area is very odd. It appears that the city is trying to create a tourist attraction by putting in planters and nice street lights. Some of the main street has been restored and there are a lot of bars and restaurants, only two of which are open on Sundays. We did manage to pry that much information out of the hotel clerk before we left.
The choice on Sunday is between a Mexican place and a sports bar. We decided grill food sounds better for lunch, so we went to Varsity Sports Grill at the end of downtown. The facade of an ornate building fronts the parking lot. This town must have been quite grand back in its day, but it sure is a hodge podge now. Step one block off of the main street and all of the old buildings are empty.
Our food was OK, nothing special. We both had a raspberry chicken salad and shared a beef-filled quesadilla. The bill was $32.00, which is a bit high for what we had, but not ridiculous. The nearby convention center, Holiday Inn and Courtyard Marriott must provide the only business the downtown restaurants get. There would be no other reason to come to this part of town unless you are a tourist. The historic sites are here also, but locals aren't going to visit those more than once, if at all. We'll give the city credit for making an effort to revive this old part of the city, but they're facing an uphill battle.
Back at the Courtyard, we found the lobby still devoid of any activity except for the indifferent desk clerk and her manager who is half her age. No wonder she's such a crab. When Dave walked up to her, she asked the same thing as before, "What do you need?" He replied the same way as before. She didn't look up and didn't appear to realize she had talked to him two hours before. It isn't like 400 people arrived in the meantime. We'd be surprised if she saw more than one other person during that time.
The only reason she even pretended to give a shit now is because the manager is within earshot. However, all she did is hand us the keys and point to the elevators. When asked where the best place to park would be, she answered, "The front door is right there, so suit yourself." Charming.
Other than the staff, this hotel is quite nice. The lobby is beautifully decorated and looks very inviting. The restaurant is only open for breakfast on the weekends, so it is dead this afternoon, but it looks nice. We are staying on points, so there is no charge for us, but it was less to stay here than at most Courtyard hotels. Our room is on the fourth floor (top) and matches the lobby in attractiveness. A refrigerator is sitting oddly out of place on the floor. Everything else is built in, so it is weird it doesn't have a place. We found out later when someone arrived to be sure we had it, that they aren't standard. It was put in the room because our Marriott profile asks for one. Whether there is a charge, we have no idea. Most hotels in this class have refrigerators, so it is strange this brand doesn't.
The beds are very comfortable and the lighting makes it feel like home. Wireless and wired internet is free of charge, but we had to switch to our own wireless modem and use the wired system. Their wireless kept cutting us off. They use the same AT&T system the last place used without much success.
We rested until 5:30 pm when we decided to go in search of a supermarket or fast food place to bring back some dinner. We have to be back in time to watch the finale of 'The Amazing Race'. Everything is on an hour earlier than we're used to at home. We don't care who wins the race as long as it isn't the 'Big Brother' couple. They already won that show and have no business invading another reality show. Sorry, we digress.
We drove along the main street the hotel is on in the opposite direction of the old downtown. That lead us to some newer parts of town, but apparently everyone eats fast food because we found only out of business grocery stores. Eventually we found a Wal-mart "Neighborhood Grocery", so that probably explains why the local stores bit the dust. We bought some sandwiches and other food for dinner and returned to the hotel. This isn't a town one would want to linger in for long. It isn't attractive at all, but it isn't necessarily sinister either. It just is.
Storm clouds rolled in at dusk. It is supposed to be a lot cooler tomorrow. The news reports say there is a possibility of "severe weather" overnight, whatever that means.
Day 21: Monday, May 7 - Fort Smith, AR - Courtyard by Marriott
The severe weather never materialized, but it is somewhat cooler today, which is a plus. It isn't chilly by any means, but tolerable. There were some storm clouds early in the day, but they dissipated by noon.
We went downstairs for breakfast, which is not included in the room rate. It is a similar setup to a Hilton Garden Inn where there is a buffet or ala carte from a menu. The difference is that here you get either/or, not both. We chose the buffet because the server obviously isn't in any mood to actually do anything. While we waited to be seated, Dave had plenty of time to take a photo of the attractive lobby and pool area. There are only four other guests in the entire place, by the way. That must be considered a rush since the waitress acted like she was busy.
The buffet was just OK, no better than a much cheaper chain hotel would be. Everything looked picked over even though we arrived well before closing time. The scrambled eggs were empty, so we had to ask for more. There is a station for made-to-order eggs, but no one was working it. Eventually, the waitress made the chef come out and he said he'd make whatever we want, which he did.
The food was OK, nothing special, but fine. It was $10 per person for the buffet, which is overpriced for what they have to offer. It really isn't any better than what we had at the Drury Plaza for free and falls far short of the free breakfast at the Quality Inn. Still, it gets us started without having to leave the hotel to look for a restaurant.
The same woman who checked us in yesterday is back again today, purposely ignoring a man waiting to pay for something from the shop. If this woman smiled her face would probably crack. She didn't even look up from her phone call to acknowledge the man standing right in front of her.
Today's agenda is an easy one. We left the hotel on foot around 10:00 am and wandered about three blocks to the National Cemetery. It is a cemetery, nothing more, although it is pushed as an attraction. On the way we passed a monument to Confederate soldiers in front of a courthouse.
That took all of five minutes, so we kept walking toward the river and some derelict old rail cars sitting in a weedy field. As we got closer, we could see an open door and a sign for the Trolley Museum. You'd definitely have to be looking for this place to find it. It is in an old warehouse down a neglected side street. Come to think of it, everything in this part of town is neglected, so maybe it fits right in. The odd thing about the town is that it isn't scary in any way and we haven't seen any homeless people at all. It is just old and lots of the buildings are vacant. Some of them have most likely been in that state for twenty years.
As we approached the door to the museum, a man called out to, "Come right on in." He was flopped in a chair in his engineer outfit, but we was very nice to us. He asked if we want to look around "or what." We said we'd look around and he launched into an explanation of a fancy trolley currently being restored and another one next to it that has barely begun restoration. When asked how long it takes to finish one, he said they started the fancy one in 2001 and it still isn't finished, "so you get the picture." The place is run by a bunch of retired guys who like to play with trains and when they get around to fixing something up they do. If nobody feels like it that day, nothing happens.
Just as we were finishing up looking around, another old guy arrived dressed in a conductor outfit and plopped himself down to eat his lunch. He was also very friendly and told us he has his own museum at home. Like we said, these are guys who just love trolleys and trains, so now that they are retired, they get to play with them whenever they want to.
The guy who greeted us asked if we want to ride on a trolley. We said we'd like to if it isn't any trouble, so he called someone who arrived so quickly he must have been standing right outside. Turns out he was waiting at the fort station when a busload of kids arrived and he didn't want them all over the trolley. So, he moved back toward the museum.
The trolley driver was also extremely nice to us and offered to take us on a ride. We are the only ones riding, so he explained the history of the trolleys and how they are working to extend the tracks. They have raised enough money to add four more blocks of track, but they have to jump through hoops to get it approved by various government agencies. The currently running trolley is one of the original Fort Smith trolleys. When they finish the restoration of the fancier one in the barn, they'll put it on the tracks instead and work on fixing this one.
It took a few tries to get the only trolley working. Eventually the driver figured out that he had forgotten to switch the wires to make it go in the other direction. The trolley runs on 5,000 volts DC from an overhead cable. To switch directions the driver has to pull the arm down from one end and attach the other one to the cable. That done, we rumbled off toward the fort and the main street of town. Along the way we picked up a couple other people, but the driver's attention was on us because we were paying more attention to him.
After reaching the river, he took us back the other way to the cemetery. He explained that a new park near the river is the result of the 1996 tornado that wiped out a large swath of old brick warehouses. The Ferris wheel in the odd amusement park is from the 1935 World's Fair in San Diego (supposedly.) The carousel is from Paris and the dining car from somewhere else unusual we have forgotten.
When we got back to the museum he asked if we wanted to stay on, so we said we'd like to go back to the fort. He took us there gladly. The charge for this is $2.00, which he almost forgot to ask us for, "because I got so excited to have riders." We gave him $20.00 and told him to keep the change as a donation. The trolley ride was an unexpectedly charming addition to our plan for today. Talking to these guys made us realize that not everyone here is a sourpuss like the people at the hotel, so Fort Smith has gone up a bit in our ratings.
We wandered the short block to the Fort Smith National Historic Site. We have seen little signs along the highway that are too small to read while driving past them. Finally, we figured out they are for the Trail of Tears, but we aren't sure what that entails. There is a plaque nearby here that explains it refers to the forced relocation of Native Americans to Indian lands to the west. The fort was established first to prevent a war between two local tribes and later to distribute supplies that were promised to the departing natives as part of the relocation treaty. The whole sordid affair is disgusting, but hopefully we can all learn from it and prevent it from happening again...yeah, right.
The site includes the remains of two frontier forts, the original fort on the river, and the more recent located here. The newer fort buildings were used for other purposes, so a couple of those are still standing. The only remains of the old fort are some stone foundations.
At the center of the grounds is the original building that houses the visitor center in the basement. It was used as a jail, barracks, and courthouse. The exterior looks pretty much as it did back in the day. We saved $4.00 per person with our National Park Pass, and then the ranger played an introductory movie for us (nobody else was there). It explains the relocation and the Trail of Tears, how Judge Parker helped bring justice to the lawless region, and other pertinent facts we promptly forgot.
In the basement is the original jail that housed prisoners in hellish conditions. The judge eventually insisted that new cells be built upstairs. They have been reconstructed to show the improved conditions, although they certainly wouldn't pass muster these days. There is also a replica of Judge Parker's courtroom, but it was hosting a bunch of school kids, so we skipped it.
After chatting briefly with the friendly ranger and buying our usual souvenir, we walked back outside to look at the rebuilt gallows. Judge Parker was known as the "hanging judge" although he was opposed to capital punishment. There are various signs and interpretive displays on the grounds.
We followed a paved trail toward the Arkansas River to the location of the old fort that is represented by only a stone foundation. Nearby are interpretive signs and an overlook for the Trail of Tears. The Arkansas and Poteau Rivers meet here. The trail continues along the river through a lovely forested area. At one point the ground is covered with cotton-like fluff from a tree. It looks like snow, but it is some sort of cotton substance.
Near the entrance to the trail, on the inland side of the railroad tracks, is a reconstruction of the 1858 border marker between Arkansas and the Choctaw Territory. The only other original building still standing at the fort is the Commissary Storehouse. Nearby the park service has laid out concrete pads to represent the location of the officer's quarters that burned in the early 1900's. There is also a recreated garden behind one of the pads.
Inside the storehouse they have recreated what it would have looked like when it was part of the fort. It was used as a museum for many years, but the museum since moved to a nearby brick building. Luckily for us it is closed on Mondays.
After checking out a few remaining displays on the grounds of the fort, we walked back to the hotel along the old downtown street. The city has done a good job of making this area attractive and there are a lot of restaurants here. However, where the customers come from is anyone's guess. We sure didn't see any today. There are only a few people walking around and only because there is a government building and a large bank on the street.
We arrived back at the hotel around 3:00 pm where we found the front desk woman still actively avoiding eye contact with the guests. After snacking on some supplies we already have, Bill went off to the car wash. He found some enormous Dallas-esque mansions on the way back. We are aware of a historic district of old homes, but didn't make the effort to drive over to see them. At least one of us saw them today.
A maintenance man knocked on the door looking for something he can hear rattling on the floor below. We don't hear anything annoying, so we can't help him. At least he was pleasant, which is a shocker for this place.
We'll go out in search of dinner around 5:30 pm.
We walked back downtown to La Huerta Grill for dinner. It is in a refurbished brick gas station. We were seated immediately and the food came out almost before we ordered it. Click to view the Menu. We ordered the Special Dinner and the Burritos Jalisco, both of which were outstanding. We were astounded when the bill came to only $21.00! The restaurant had a surprising amount of business considering there is nothing around it. Most of the customers appeared to be locals.
We were back in the room by 7:15 pm. We'll be moving on to Oklahoma City tomorrow. It is another relatively short drive with no planned stops unless, of course, we spot a tacky tourist attraction along the highway.
Day 22: Tuesday, May 8 - Drive to Oklahoma City, OK - Residence Inn by Marriott-Downtown/Bricktown
With over 50 legendary attractions including the National Cowboy and Western
Museum and the Myriad Botanical Gardens, plus world-class shopping, restaurants
and hotels, Oklahoma City
is the ideal spot for a weekend of fun and reflection. Discover the sights and
sounds of the Old West in Stockyards City, watch horse races at Remington Park,
then have dinner and see a show in historic Bricktown. Designed to duplicate an
1800s frontier town, families will love the Frontier City Theme Park where
visitors see an reenactment of the gun fight at the OK corral and ride thrilling
roller coasters. On a more somber note, the site of the 1995 terrorist attack,
known today as the Oklahoma City National Memorial, and the Memorial Institute
for the Prevention of Terrorism, are not to be missed.
It is rainy and much cooler today. The rain is light and shouldn't cause us any problems for the drive to Oklahoma City.
The staff in the restaurant this morning is a huge improvement over what we've encountered at the hotel previously. They were both very pleasant and attentive. The breakfast buffet is the same as yesterday, minimal, but fine. It should be complimentary because it offers less variety than several of the free breakfasts we've had other places. But, it is better than nothing and since we're staying here on points, we can afford the $20 per day for breakfast (total, not per person.)
We'll set off toward our next destination around 11:00 am, as usual. The drive, without stops, should take a little over two hours. There aren't any stops scheduled, but maybe we'll get lucky and stumble upon something interesting.
The final verdict on the Fort Smith Courtyard by Marriott: Soulless. This place is a perfect example of how the staff can make or break a guest's experience. We've never encountered a staff so unfriendly overall. The front desk in particular is indifferent to the point of being rude. The hotel itself is very attractive and well designed. The rooms are spacious with comfortable beds and nice decor. We don't like the hotel deciding how low we can set our air conditioning though. It won't go below 72 degrees and that's not low enough in the heat and humidity here to be comfortable at night. The wireless internet is useless. We had to switch to wired and it also cuts out now and then. At least it is free, but it should still work. We might stay here again because it is comfortable and newer than the Holiday Inn next door, but it is a toss-up.
As for Fort Smith, there isn't any reason for us to stop here again, but our outing yesterday helped redeem it. The guys at the trolley museum are very welcoming and friendly. The Fort Smith Historic Site is interesting and well presented. But, we've seen it, so no need to return. Would we recommend coming here? Not really, unless you need a place to stop to break up a long drive. Nothing here is a must-see.
The manager who checked us out this morning helped improve our opinion of this hotel. She was very warm and friendly. She should retrain everyone at the front desk. We owed only $26 for yesterday's breakfast. The hotel stay was on points.
We hit the road at 11:00 am. It was overcast the entire day and much cooler, probably in the low 70's at most. It sprinkled a couple of times during the 2.5 hour drive, but never enough to wet the pavement.
We made only one brief stop at an Oklahoma Welcome Center/Rest Stop. After we "rested" we were given a 1-inch thick stack of glossy magazines and maps about Oklahoma at no charge. We did look through them to see if there is anything to stop at on the way to Oklahoma City. Answer, no.
The drive was pleasant enough. There isn't any traffic out here even though there is major road construction going on. We passed through several Indian Nations. Each of them has at least one casino at the off ramp. No kidding, we must have passed ten of them, all of which are in the middle of nowhere.
The terrain here is low rolling hills covered in thick forests or open grazing land. We saw only cattle ranches, no farming of any kind.
We arrived in Oklahoma City at 2:30 pm. The desk clerk at the Residence Inn didn't roll her eyes or anything when we said we have a reservation. That's a plus over the previous place. She informed us of breakfast time (free) and a free evening snack and drinks tonight (usually three nights a week.) Parking is $6.50 per day which is ridiculous since we're parked in an open lot in front of the hotel.
The hotel is attractive, but a bit worn. Nothing terrible, just needs some sprucing up. Since it is across the street from two sports venues, it probably gets some heavy use. It is overpriced for what it is at $179.00 per night, but the rooms are typical Residence Inn suites with a full kitchen. Our room is quite large. The kitchen here is nicer than the Residence Inn we stayed at in Portland. The living room and bedroom are both much larger, as well. The decor is exactly the same. The only thing worth mentioning that isn't great is a very worn recliner that should be replaced. Otherwise, the room is very nice. We have a view of the Bricktown Riverwalk behind the hotel. We don't know where it goes, but it looks attractive.
Bricktown is an area of old warehouses that has been remade into an entertainment district surrounding the Coca-Cola Event Center and a baseball stadium. The Hampton Inn looks directly into the stadium, so if you want to watch a game from your room, choose that hotel instead. We are across the street from the stadium and the arena.
We're starving, so we walked a block to an IHOP attached to the arena. We were the only customers the entire time we were there. How this place stays in business being open 24/7 is anyone's guess. There is nothing around it except the two small hotels, so they must rely on stadium and arena business. The service was pleasant and we both liked our sandwiches. The total bill was less than $20, which is hard to beat for what we had.
After lunch we wandered over to the Bass Pro Shop adjacent to the hotel. This one is of similar vintage to the one in Branson, but is a lot bigger. The decor inside is the same, but there are some additional elements out front like a painted buffalo statue. This location has a shooting gallery, as well. We found a couple of things to buy we didn't see at the previous one. The staff is extremely pleasant and offered to help when we looked bewildered.
Back at the hotel, we sat around until we could muster up the energy to go out for dinner.
We strolled across the Riverwalk bridge behind the hotel to the nearby Toby Keith's I Love This Bar & Grill. It is very busy, but there's no wait for a table. They offer live entertainment on weekends. Our server was very friendly and attentive. Click to view the Menu. We ordered the Meatloaf and the Filet. Both came with a choice of two sides. The portions are enormous, but we had no problem finishing everything on our plate. The food was outstanding. Even the sides were interesting. The meatloaf was topped with a spicy chili sauce while the filet was spiced with a rub that was very good. Our bill came to $61 before tip which is a good value for the amount and quality of food we received. It is no wonder this place is doing a booming business.
After dinner we strolled up the Riverwalk to see where it goes. There are several restaurants, a huge movie theater complex and a restaurant/bowling alley (don't ask.) There are a few empty pads for sale, but overall everything existing seems to be doing good business. There is something going on at the ballpark across the street. We found out later that there is a baseball game there tonight, but it sure is quiet. The customers for the restaurants don't appear to have come here for whatever it is that's going on over there.
We arrived back in our room around 8:30 pm. Every employee we passed on the way to the room, including a maintenance man, said hello to us. It's quite a contrast from the Courtyard.
Day 23: Wednesday, May 9 - Oklahoma City, OK - Residence Inn by Marriott-Downtown/Bricktown
It is bright and sunny this morning, in the high 70's. We didn't get up in time for the early cut-off time for the free breakfast (9:00am), so we walked across the street to IHOP. For the same $20.00 we paid at the Courtyard for a very basic buffet, we got a full breakfast with pancakes, fruit, eggs, etc. at IHOP. Service was very friendly and cheerful. They were doing a good business this morning.
An event involving tons of school kids is going on at the stadium today. Buses disgorged hundreds of kids as we crossed the parking lot back to the hotel.
We received a voice mail and an email from the general manager of the hotel apologizing for a problem with the hot water this morning. We aren't aware of any problems, but it is proactive of him to make the effort to notify everyone.
We decided to drive to our destinations today, just because we can. The entire downtown area is only about ten blocks square, but it is warm and there is no traffic, so we drove. Our first destination is the Oklahoma City National Memorial & Museum. We parked in a weird old building where we shoved our $5 fee into a crack in a metal box, as instructed. They even provide a tool so you can cram the bill through the slot.
We went to the memorial first. Along the street leading to one of the gates is the original chain link fence that was erected to protect the site. People brought mementos to attach to the fence in remembrance and tribute, so they kept it as part of the memorial. Some 60,000 offerings have been collected and stored at the museum.
Click to view a Map of the grounds. The following descriptions are excerpted from the information provided by the museum:
"The Outdoor Symbolic Memorial is meant to be a place of quiet reflection. It honors the victims, survivors, rescuers, and all who were changed forever on April 19, 1995. It encompasses the now-sacred soil where the Murrah Building once stood, as well as the surrounding area devastated during the attack.
Monumental Gates of Time frame the moment of destruction – 9:02 a.m. – and mark the formal entrances to the Memorial. The East Gate represents 9:01 a.m. on April 19, and the innocence of the city before the attack. The West Gate represents 9:03 a.m., the moment we were changed forever, and the hope that came from the horror in the moments and days following the bombing. Etched on the gates is this sentiment: "We come here to remember those who were killed, those who survived and those changed forever. May all who leave here know the impact of violence. May this memorial offer comfort, strength, peace, hope and serenity.®"
The Reflecting Pool occupies what was once N.W. Fifth Street. Here, a shallow depth of gently flowing water helps soothe wounds, with calming sounds providing a peaceful setting for quiet thoughts. The placid surface shows the reflection of someone changed forever by their visit to the Memorial.
The 168 chairs represent the lives taken on April 19, 1995. They stand in nine rows to represent each floor of the building, and each chair bears the name of someone killed on that floor. Nineteen smaller chairs stand for the children. The field is located on the footprint of the Murrah Building.
On the east end of the Memorial stand the only remaining walls from the Murrah Building. These walls remind us of those who survived the terrorist attack, many with serious injuries. Today, more than 600 names are inscribed on salvaged pieces of granite from the Murrah Building lobby.
The Survivor Tree, an American Elm, bore witness to the violence of April 19, 1995, and withstood the full force of the attack. Years later, it continues to stand as a living symbol of resilience. The circular promontory surrounding the tree offers a place for gathering and viewing the Memorial.
The Memorial Museum takes visitors on a chronological, self-guided tour through the story of April 19, 1995, and the days, weeks, months and years that followed the bombing of Oklahoma City's Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building. This is the story of one of the largest terrorist attacks on American soil. The story is told in chapters, and takes visitors through this historical event beginning early morning April 19, 1995, and ending with a message of hope for today."
The exhibits are exceptionally well thought out and do a wonderful job of explaining the events and the aftermath. Poignant video accounts from survivors and relatives of victims flesh out a story of tragedy and resilience. As you know, we are not museum people, but we spent several hours here not even realizing how much time had passed. This museum is a must-see for everyone and should not be missed. It is sad, but uplifting at the same time. The sentiments are honest and direct without being overly dramatic. If you would like all of the details of the museum and memorial, you can visit their website by clicking HERE.
A volunteer who was present on the day of the bombing chatted with us and explained the destruction in the vicinity. Not only was the Federal Building destroyed, but the entire neighborhood was damaged. Several churches across the street were either severely damaged or destroyed. For several blocks around, windows were blown in causing many injuries. Most of the buildings surrounding the epicenter had to be razed because they were damaged beyond repair. The entire downtown was stripped of its identity because all of the small businesses were displaced. The area didn't begin to recover until a decision was made to construct a new Federal Building across the street.
A touching memorial entitled "And Jesus Wept" marks the spot were a catholic church used to stand. It was rebuilt nearby. There is an open air chapel across the street that was built immediately after the bombing as a place for families and others to pray. It stills stands today.
The museum building is housed in the 1920's Journal Records Building. It was heavily damaged, but survived the blast. It was originally built as a Masonic Temple, so it is very solidly built. Even so, cracks remain where the walls were lifted and then fell back into place. A twisted fire escape on the wall facing the memorial has been left as it was. The wall remains unpainted to show how it was pitted by the shrapnel. A spray painted message from one of the rescue teams has been preserved.
The original Murrah Plaza still exists that used to be the front entrance to the building. It has been restored as it was on that day. It was used as a triage center immediately after the bombing because it was protected from the blast that occurred on the other side of the building. Now it affords an overview of the memorial below.
We walked back to the car where we discovered we had left the window rolled down. Oops! Or, should we say, duh!! Nothing was stolen, but we'll be more vigilant from now on!
Our next stop, after navigating several blocks of torn up streets, is the Myriad Botanical Garden. Parking for this is on the street, but we were able to find a spot across the street. This garden is more of a city park than what one expects of a botanical garden. The outside grounds are free and open to everyone. The main attraction is the Crystal Bridge that requires an admission of $7.00 per person.
The bridge is a giant tubular greenhouse that spans a pond below. Inside there is a tropical trail that winds among unusual flowering plants. Several tall waterfalls add to the ambience. Above is a catwalk that runs the length of the structure and provides a birds-eye view of the plantings. While certainly beautiful, we are hard pressed to say it is worth the price of admission. But, if you are in the area it is worth a look see.
Outside, we wandered around the grounds. There is a large structure that is a water play area for kids, but it is dry today. There is an amphitheater called the Water Stage on one side of the bridge. The large pond underneath is full of huge koi. It is possible to walk down and under the bridge. There are lots of places to sit and enjoy the view.
Across the street is a gleaming new skyscraper that can be seen for miles around. It is at least twice the height of any other downtown buildings. We're not sure what it is because there are no signs on it, but it looks as though it is almost finished. It will certainly be the centerpiece of the city.
Continuing our walk around the garden/park, we came across several interesting fountains. One is a stepped affair that produces waves that crash down the steps. It sounds like ocean waves here in the middle of land-locked Oklahoma. Another originates from a stacked stone wall and runs down troughs lining the pathway. Still another is present, we assume, to induce the use of the adjacent restrooms. There is a vacant restaurant building in this area. This side of the sunken pond has a tiered waterfall that spills into the pond from ground level.
That completes our tour of the sites in Oklahoma City. We spent more time at the museum than we had anticipated, so we didn't arrive back at the hotel until 3:00 pm. We walked over to Fuzzy's Taco Shop for a light lunch. Click to view the Menu. It was extremely noisy inside, but outside overlooking the Riverwalk was pleasant. We had a couple of chicken tacos and a shredded chicken salad, both of which were made with fresh ingredients and far better than other Mexican food chains.
One of the girls working there came over to collect our dirty dishes and asked where we're from. She was very friendly and chatted with us for a few minutes. Everyone today has been extremely welcoming and upon learning we are from out of town, each of them thanked us for coming to visit their city.
On the way back to the hotel, we saw one of the Riverwalk tour boats passing by. The corporate headquarters of Sonic Drive-ins is here, which is a bit out of place in the middle of an entertainment district. But, they have a nice view of the area from their offices. No wonder we have seen so many Sonics recently.
We were back in our room by 4:30 pm where we'll stay until we're forced to go out looking for food again. We received another voice mail message from the GM, this time telling us that window washers will need access to the rooms tomorrow. He assured us that there would be a hotel staff member with them at all times. We'll be gone by then, but again, he's being very proactive.
We went back to Toby Keith's for dinner at 7:00 pm. It was even busier than it was last night with the game going on, so it is drawing the business on its own. Our meals were again outstanding. The rotisserie chicken was well worth the effort to get it off the bone. The sirloins were again wonderful with no fat at all. Bill had a cocktail so large the waitress made him take the glass home as a souvenir.
Tomorrow is one of our longer drives, over four hours, so we're hoping we'll run across something interesting to look at on the way. Most of the route follows Route 66 via Interstate 40, but there might be some sites to get off the highway to check out...or not. We'll see!
Day 24: Thursday, May 10 - Drive to Amarillo, TX - Courtyard by Marriott Downtown
Amarillo is the perfect place to get a big taste of Texas even if you only have
a small amount of time. From canyons to old Cadillacs and gigantic steaks to
grand scenery, the city is an Old West enthusiast's dream. One of the country's
best collections of Western art and artifacts can be found at the
Panhandle-Plains Historical Museum. Mosey on over to the Amarillo Livestock
Auction to mingle with real cowboys as they go about the business of buying and
selling cattle. For those with interests that are more modern, the city boasts a
great art museum and beautiful botanical gardens. If you're traveling with kids,
don't miss the thrilling rides at Wonderland Park. The whole family will be in
awe of the fantastic rock formations at Palo Duro Canyon State Park.
It's another beautiful day, not too hot, not too cold. Just right. We went to IHOP again for breakfast and again it was fine.
The final verdict on the Residence Inn: Well managed. You can tell from the moment of arrival that the management of this hotel cares about service. The staff is polite, well trained, and wearing proper uniforms and nametags. We know that's a small thing, but it is details like this that make the difference. The hotel is very clean and well designed. It is time for a refurbishment soon, but other than that we have nothing bad to say about this place.
As for Oklahoma City, it is clean and modern. There aren't as many empty businesses here as we have seen elsewhere. There is actually new construction going on. Tourist attractions are few, so there isn't much reason to visit, but if you do you'll probably like it. The locals are very friendly.
We hit the road at 10:30 am for our four hour plus drive to Amarillo. We had no stops planned, but we had to stop at the Cherokee Trading Post because there is a billboard advertising it every mile. They have everything here. In the simulated tee pee behind the Shell station is a mini-mart/subway/restroom. Behind that is a huge gift shop full of tacky trinkets and supposedly authentic pottery, moccasins, handicrafts and such. There is also a large restaurant. In the field behind are a plastic buffalo and empty pens where real buffalos are supposed to be on display. We saw no evidence of the "bounce pillows" advertised on a billboard.
Back on the road, we drove another hour or so, passing the Oklahoma Route 66 Museum. Then we came upon the National Route 66 Museum, so we just had to stop. We're not quite sure who decides what is national and what is local, but we're guessing it is a bunch of old biddies at a church social.
We paid our $4.00 per person admission and tried to figure out how the heck this place works. The woman at the counter was vague to say the least, although she was very pleasant. She gave us a brochure that doubles as a ticket, and a map of the grounds. There are several buildings and other museums all included in the price. It is certainly worth the admission price.
The buildings are arranged around a central park area and have facades of various businesses one might find along the road. The first building is the Route 66 Museum. It contains displays of memorabilia, old cars and such. It is well done and has some interesting artifacts to look at. There is some scary stuff, too, of course.
Other buildings house displays of various shops, cabins, a chapel, etc. One of the other museums is the Old Town Museum. It is a collection of stuff in no particular order. They seem to be most interested in displays featuring some scary-ass mannequins. There is also a reproduction of an old train station with a small model train inside, a blacksmith shop and a large Farming Museum in a barn. It is full of equipment including a large collection of hog oilers, we kid you not. They even have an interactive display set up where everyone can use a saw and a drill. Doesn't that sound fun? The old coot running it was friendly. Outside is a field full of tractors and windmills. We wouldn't knock anyone over to get here, but it is worth $4.00, just.
We continued driving until we entered Texas at roughly the halfway point in our drive. Oddly enough, the landscape changed almost immediately to dry, treeless scrub and cattle pastures. Up until the border, the rolling hills were covered in lush forests and green pastures. The elevation didn't chance much, so we're assuming God just doesn't like Texas. Just kidding!
Interstate 40 follows the old Route 66, but the few times we detoured off and through a small town it wasn't at all interesting. So, our only other stop was at an elaborate Rest Stop in Texas. It looks very new and has a big visitor center set into a hillside. The restrooms double as tornado shelters of all things. We're not sure how someone would know that or get here if need be. There are interesting metal shade structures dotted around, each with a Texas-shaped BBQ. None of the BBQ's has been used and we're not sure who would drive way out here for a cookout, but they look nice. There is an overlook where visitors can see just how flat Texas becomes at this point. There are also warning signs advising of the presence of rattlesnakes in the grass.
The only other site of interest along the route is a water tower that appears to be tipping over. It advertises a now-defunct cafe and auto repair shop.
At 4:15 pm we finally arrived in Amarillo. Why anyone would come to downtown Amarillo voluntarily is anyone's guess, but maybe our first impression will improve. The Courtyard by Marriott is relatively new in a renovated old bank building. There are only a few remnants of the old building left on the interior...a mail chute, some steam gauges, and the terrazzo elevator lobby floors. Everything else is typical of the new concept of a modern Courtyard hotel. The one we stayed at in Fort Smith had the same general decor, but it was set up in an earlier format.
We checked in quickly at one of the ridiculous front desk pods designed so the clerk can come around and hand you the key. Some corporate wonk must think this is more personal, but we think it is about as phony as it gets. The other "improvement" is the Go Board in the lobby that is a giant touch-screen where guests are supposed to get weather reports, find restaurants, etc. We tried to find a restaurant and it proved completely useless. An expensive gimmick if there ever was one.
Our room is enormous, but with the exact same decor as the previous Courtyard. We do like the design and everything is comfortable, so no complaints. There is a lot of wasted floor space because the rooms here are so big, but we do have a built in refrigerator this time. The beds are the same, as is the desk/TV unit and the bathroom. There is no view to speak of through the tiny windows.
When it was time for dinner, we tried to play along and use the Go Board to find something. There is a Mexican place across the street and that's about it. The board listed several things miles away, but the information given about them is useless. Like we said, it is nothing more than a gimmick.
We figured we'd look up some restaurants with our GPS, so we got in the car and started driving. The first place we tried no longer exists and the entire two-block square is a big apartment complex. The second choice is gone without a trace. We gave up and went back to the hotel after driving all over downtown to try the new Bistro concept. This town is very sketchy and we weren't comfortable at all driving around. Everything is out of business and the downtown area is deserted after business hours.
Courtyards used to have full restaurants, but the newer ones have a ridiculous Bistro that is basically a fast food counter that serves Starbucks coffee and cocktails. The only soft drinks are in bottles from a case by the register. Everyone who walked in stood there completely bewildered by it. The choices are very limited, but we ordered flatbread pizzas, a chicken Caesar salad, broccoli/cheese soup, a dessert and smoothie. The bill was $50, which is ridiculous.
The seating area is trendy, too. There are TVs built into the odd round booths that are so cushy it is impossible to sit up straight. Every TV is set on a different channel with no way to change it in spite of the fact that they are in your booth right in your face. Oh yeah, there are flat screen TVs built into the wall in all of the elevator lobbies, too. Are we supposed to stop and watch TV when we step out the elevator or what?
Anyway, we had plenty of time to analyze the Bistro because it took over 30 minutes to get our food. Then she forgot part of it, although she was very apologetic and brought it right away. The food was fine, but WAY overpriced.
Breakfast ends too early for us, so we tried to buy some fruit and were refused. "We only sell it during breakfast." The containers of fruit where sitting right behind the counter, by the way. When we chose some orange juice and two yogurt containers out of the case, she gave us the yogurt for free because, "We only sell that at breakfast." Why is it in a self-service display if it isn't for sale??? The little snack shop by the front desk, er, pods, was mostly empty with only one salad, one sandwich, a cup of fruit and some frozen meals. By the way, there are no microwaves in the rooms.
Oh yeah, the counter where orders have to be placed is lined with bar stools where the front desk clerk plopped herself down right in front of the menu. We almost had to push her aside to place an order. And who was manning the pod in the lobby during all of this? Nobody. At least everyone is nice, but where is management?
We won't be eating at the hotel again, that's for sure. We're kind of turned off to the Courtyard brand. We like the rooms, but they aren't as good a value as comparable Hilton Garden Inns. Breakfast at HGI's are far superior for the price than at a Courtyard.
We're having some problems with the internet here (and at all of the Marriott properties so far), so if pictures are missing or links are broken, please be patient until we get to a non-Marriott property in a few days.
Day 25: Friday, May 11 - Amarillo, TX - Courtyard by Marriott Downtown
Palo Duro Canyon State Park opened on July 4, 1934 and contains 29,182 acres of the scenic, northern most portion of the Palo Duro Canyon. The Civilian Conservation Corps of the 1930's constructed most of the buildings and roads still in use by park staff and visitors. The Canyon is 120 miles long, as much as 20 miles wide, and has a maximum depth of more than 800 feet. Its elevation at the rim is 3,500 feet above sea level. It is often claimed that it is the second largest canyon in the United States. The largest, the Grand Canyon, is 277 miles long, 18 miles wide, and 6,000 ft. deep. The canyon was formed by water erosion from the Prairie Dog Town Fork of the Red River. The water deepens the canyon by moving sediment downstream. Wind and water erosion gradually widen the canyon. Early Spanish Explorers are believed to have discovered the area and dubbed the canyon "Palo Duro" which is Spanish for "hard wood" in reference to the abundant mesquite and juniper trees.
The weather has taken a turn for the worse. It is cold and raining today. This doesn't bode well for our scheduled outing.
We woke up early enough for breakfast at the Bistro. It was almost as confusing as last night, but not quite. We ordered breakfast plates which are the same as you'd get in a real restaurant. The price is way too high for what you get though, over $25.00 for what is basically fast food. Our meals were fine and ample quantities. Again, everyone who walked in looked completely bewildered by the whole process.
Our plans for today include Palo Duro Canyon and the Panhandle-Plains Museum, both about thirty minutes south of Amarillo. We wanted to stay in the town of Canyon where the museum is located, but all of the hotels are full during our stay. There is some sort of event taking place at the arena over the weekend.
It rained the entire drive to Canyon, but nothing out of the ordinary. We wish we had been able to book a room in this city because it is a much nicer than Amarillo. There are restaurants galore and it doesn't look like skid row.
We stopped at the museum first in the hopes that the rain might stop before we drive out to the canyon.
We made a dash for the front door of the Panhandle-Plains Historical Museum after wading through a flooded sidewalk at the corner. A friendly staffer sold us our tickets ($10 per person) and told us to start anywhere because it isn't arranged in a particular order. He wasn't kidding either. One display went from Indians in mud huts directly to dresses from the 1950's, to Model T cars, to dinosaurs. Well, not quite that ridiculous, but close. Click to view the museum's Brochure.
There isn't much rhyme or reason to the way the museum is arranged, but they have a wide array of interesting artifacts back to when life on earth began to the present oil boom. It is all oriented to the Texas Panhandle, as you'd expect from the name. There is a full-sized drilling rig at the front of the museum that was salvaged from actual use in the fields. Only the derrick part is a reconstruction, everything else is original.
We successfully avoided the hordes of school kids while in the exhibits, but it was damn fool luck. We didn't have the life sucked out of us by boredom until we reached the "art" galleries in the back. Everything else was fun to look at and well presented. Would it kill someone to dust once in a while?
After picking up our usual souvenirs, we dashed back to the car outside. The flood at the corner had grown another couple of inches deeper in the two hours we were inside, but we made it back to the car.
Palo Duro Canyon is about eight miles east on the same road the museum is located on. We set out in that direction when it began pouring rain. By pouring, we mean a torrential downpour the likes of which we've never seen before. Pouring, as in POURING. We had to pull over at one point because we couldn't see the road.
We figure we've come this far, we might as well continue to the gate and see what happens when we arrive. The rain POURED for the entire drive. It was still pouring when we arrived at the entrance sign. Click to view a Map of what we missed.
The ranger at the gate laughed when Bill asked if there is any point in even trying to see anything. She said we can try if we want to, but "You won't see much of anything," and we might get stuck in a flooded wash. Oh well, too bad, so sad, we'll have to cross this one off as a wash, literally. The ranger was very nice and told us it will be too wet tomorrow also, so better luck next time.
We drove through the gate to turn around. They have longhorn cattle in a pen that looked rather waterlogged, but they were fascinated by us looking at them from the car. They probably hoped we had come to save them.
The rain abated somewhat for the drive back. At least we didn't have to pull over this time. It is around 2:00 pm by now, so we found a place for lunch that looked decent, Thundering Buffalo's Grill & Saloon. The lunch menu is limited, but offers enough to keep us going. We ordered a brisket sandwich and the BBQ Thunder Tacos. The tacos looked more like burritos stuffed with chopped brisket mixed with eggs and cheese (mostly brisket). Both meals were good and the bill only came to $12.00! That's less than we'd spend on average at McDonald's and this was table service.
The drive back to the hotel was uneventful. It continued to rain, but it wasn't as blinding as on the way to the canyon. We made it back to the room by 3:00 pm.
The rain let up in the late afternoon and was completely over by evening. We walked across the street to Acapulco Mexican Restaurant for dinner at 7:15 pm. This is an independent restaurant, not the chain.
We read reviews that it is noisy, but that doesn't begin to describe it! Not only is it popular and crowded, but there is live entertainment. It is a dump, but looks clean enough. Click to view the Menu. We ordered the Tacos al Carbon and a Fajita Burrito, both with beef. The food is fresh, but not the best Mexican food we've ever tasted. It was fine and a large portion. Our waitress was very nice and we were served very quickly especially considering how busy it is. We were in and out within an hour. The total check was $28.00, before tip.
The weather is supposed to improve for tomorrow, but remain cool for a few days. That'll be nice.
Day 26: Saturday, May 12 - Drive to Roswell, NM - Candlewood Suites
In the early years of
Roswell history, the 1880s and the 1890s, it was not uncommon to hear of
locals going for afternoon buggy rides and never return home. It is said they
fell victim to the Apache Indians who were raiding the Pecos Valley. Cattle
Baron John Chisum lost several ranch hands, many horses, and quite a few cattle,
until he had finally had enough. Right before one of his famous cattle trail
rides he came up missing a number of horses, so he gathered several locals and
they trailed the Apaches to Fort Stanton where they raided the camp, killing
many and retrieving over 100 of his stolen saddle horses, which he needed for
his livelihood. This curtailed many of the raids in Roswell which locals had
come to fear so mush. Chisum and his cattle were, in large part, responsible for
sustaining a good part of Roswell's early economy.
It's bright and sunny this morning for our drive through the countryside to Roswell. We expect the temperature to be in the 70's today.
Breakfast was as usual in the weird cafe thing that Courtyard feels is the new in thing. Whatever. Food is fine, but overpriced. We have no idea how they would handle a rush because it takes them forever to get the food out as it is (the hotel is almost empty). Click to view the Menu.
The final verdict on the Courtyard by Marriott Amarillo Downtown: OK. The rooms are large with the same decor as all courtyards. It is a good value at $118 per night for a double room. We don't like the new version of their food service, so we'll avoid "updated" Courtyards in the future. Since there are no other options nearby for breakfast it is a drag to be stuck with the Bistro. Plus, it closes at 9:30 am, too early in our opinion. The staff is friendly and pleasant, although a bit too casual. We haven't seen any management since we've been here, so the inmates are running the asylum.
As for Amarillo. Sorry, but it is a hole. We wouldn't stop here again. They're trying to revive the downtown core, but what they have now is government buildings, banks, nightclubs, wine bars, one restaurant and a hotel. Good luck with that. Drive two blocks in either direction and you're in the ghetto. It is clean though, so it could be a lot worse. You can get a massage just by driving the old brick streets, so maybe that is another plus.
We hit the road around 10:30 am.
There is a time change when we cross into New Mexico, one hour back. The total drive time is about 3 1/2 hours on a state highway. We first have to drive to Canyon where we were yesterday, then turn west. If our original plan to stay in Canyon had worked out, this route would have been more convenient. As it is now, it adds about twenty minutes to the drive, so not too bad.
Let's cut to the chase and tell you that nothing happened the entire time. We only stopped once at a gas station because the roads in Texas are terrible and we had to rest. No kidding, it was that bumpy. Our teeth were chattering and it wasn't cold. By the way, the temperature today only went above 70 when we arrived in Roswell and even then it was only 72.
The terrain during the Texas portion of the drive is completely flat. We could see for miles all around. Not that there is anything to look at, but if there were, we could see it. The highway winds through several very down and out small towns where the only businesses that don't look bombed out are gas stations. Well, OK, Clovis has some chain motels, too. Other than that all there is to look as is flat rangeland, concrete grain silos, some extremely odiferous stock yards, long freight trains and the aforementioned dumpy little towns. It is shocking how many people live in totally god-awful places.
Once we crossed the border into New Mexico, the road surface instantly improved. The small towns are fewer and farther between, but they look slightly more lively than the ones in Texas. The landscape turns to red sand in New Mexico, but otherwise it looks pretty much the same as the previous hour and a half in Texas. However, the ramshackle houses are sometimes adobe now.
We arrived in Roswell at 1:20 pm, which is 2:20 pm to us. We're staying for the first time at a Candlewood Suites because the other chains where we can earn points are either full or charging exorbitant rates. $195 for a Fairfield Inn??? No way!
The check-in girl was very pleasant, but said that the rooms aren't ready yet. She didn't roll her eyes or act annoyed, so this place is already better than the Courtyard in Fort Smith. She said to try back in an hour, so we walked across the parking lot to Denny's for lunch.
We haven't been to Denny's in at least ten years, so this is basically a new experience for us. The service was very slow and disorganized, but everyone was extremely pleasant and nice. Our food was OK and worth the price, but we wouldn't rush back. The restaurant is a little run down, but it is clean.
The slow service wasted an hour, so we went back to check the front desk again. No luck. The girl at the desk was very apologetic. We asked if there is a reason all of the hotels are filled and she said there was a graduation at the Military Academy up the street. She also said that the Fairfield Inn is known for price gouging when they are filling up, but this place doesn't do that. We noticed that to be the case in both towns where we checked prices at a Fairfield Inn.
We drove up to the old main drag in town where the UFO Museum and a bunch of related tacky shops are located. The lampposts have alien eyes painted on the globes. Even the Coke machine in front of a shop has an alien theme. A furniture store has an alien family painted on the glass. Honestly, this town isn't half bad. Most of the stores are still in business and there are tons of restaurants and nice hotels to choose from. We expected a dusty backwater, but it is nothing of the sort. They even have a Target, Walmart and JCPenney store.
To kill time we stopped at Walgreens to pick up some supplies. The clerk was very helpful and pointed out how to save some money on wine with the hang-tag coupons and a four-pack box you fill with your choice of bottles. An old woman insisted we are twins, but she immediately defaulted to reality, which is a first.
Back at the hotel at 3:45 pm, the manager is now running the front desk. She is very nice and went up to check the room to see if it is clean yet. It took another five minutes for them to finish vacuuming, but it is essentially ready. She was apologetic that we had to wait, nothing like the indifference at the Courtyard.
We received a bag with a bottle of water and a bag of Cheetos as a welcome gift for being Platinum Priority Rewards members. She also grumbled about throwing some guys out last night because they were smoking pot. Good for her! She said she was a DEA agent for seven years and announced, "I hate that shit!"
She told us how the hotel works. Since it is extended stay, there is no daily housekeeping (we knew that), but if we want new towels we can exchange them at the front desk. Coffee is free all day in the little shop stocked with snack food off the lobby. There is no breakfast (rooms have a full kitchen with a stove/microwave/refrigerator/dishwasher), but if we want to go to Denny's we can pick up vouchers from the front desk. Internet is free. She went and got a newspaper for us and said they are free, too. There is a nice complimentary laundry room also. An outdoor pool completes the amenities. Oh yeah, there is a gym, but we'd never be caught dead in one of those.
We dragged our stuff up to the room and crashed until dinner time. The term "suite" is used very loosely here. The room is about the same size as the one we had in Amarillo at the Courtyard, but the wall at the entry is lined with kitchen appliances and cabinets. There are two queen beds, an LCD TV and a leather recliner. The bathroom is standard issue, but it does have granite counters and lots of towels. It is very nice for the price ($108 per night), but it isn't a suite by any stretch of the imagination. It is clean and the beds are comfortable, so no problems so far. The A/C works well, too.
There are several cheap chain restaurants in front of the hotel: Applebee's, Denny's, IHOP, and an independent hamburger joint. Home Depot is next door. The location is a mile or so north of downtown. Several nice dinner restaurants are located less than a mile in either direction.
The first batch of photos has been posted in the Photo Gallery. All of our pictures taken from the train ride through the stay in St. Louis are posted. Over 600 photos! More to come as time permits.
We ventured out for dinner at 7:00 pm. Storm clouds are gathering. The weather report says thunderstorms are supposed to begin at 7:45 pm, but it is dry now.
We went to the Cattle Baron Restaurant about a mile up the road. There was no wait after we agreed to sit in the bar, which was actually nicer because it wasn't as crowded as the main part of the restaurant (which is huge, by the way.) This is a very nice place, well decorated with a cattle theme, of course. It is crowded, but there aren't any people waiting for tables.
Click to view the Menu. Our waiter was very nice and brought our drinks right away. We're impressed that the bartender is cleaning the glass shelves and polishing every bottle before putting them back. The whole place is spotless. We ordered the prime rib and the honey-Dijon pork chop with baked sweet potatoes. Dinners come with the salad bar or a Caesar salad. The salad bar has a huge selection of things to put on lettuce or spinach, at least ten different dressings, as well as other salads like potato, macaroni, gelatin, etc.
Both of our main courses were outstanding. The prime rib, a specialty of the house, was fantastic. The portion for both meats was enormous, covering more than half the plate. The meal also came with a loaf of bread. With one soft drink and one cocktail, our total bill came to only $52.00, before tip. For the quality and quantity of food we had, that is a great value.
It started to rain exactly on schedule at 7:45 pm. When we left the restaurant at 8:30 pm, it was pouring and we could see bolts of lightning to the west. It poured rain until we got back to the hotel and then let up to showers. The hotel manager made fun of us because we're wet, but carrying folded umbrellas. We got wet coming out of the restaurant when we didn't have the umbrellas, by the way.
We don't care if the rain continues tomorrow since all we're doing is going to the UFO Museum and the shops in the area. All of the "attractions" are indoors.
We're very happy to be in a non-Marriott hotel where the wireless internet works and is fast enough to upload without taking an hour.
Day 27: Sunday, May 13 - Roswell, NM - Candlewood Suites
It is much cooler today, again, in the mid 60's. There are clouds rolling in and the weather report calls for thunderstorms and a 60% chance of rain.
We slept in later than usual. Our allergies are running amok due to the weird weather, so we woke up a lot during the night. But, the room is comfortable and it is easy to catch up on rest, so that's what we did. We also have little to do today that will take more than a couple of hours.
We walked over to the nearby IHOP for breakfast where we found a line out the door. The wait was about thirty minutes, but all of the places serving breakfast nearby are the same, so we waited. Once seated the service was very friendly and not rushed at all. In fact, the waitress said, "I'm waiting on you, you aren't waiting on me, so take your time." Both of our meals were very good, reasonably priced and served quickly. The waitress told us she wishes all of her customers were as easy going as we are. See, we really aren't the monsters some people seem to think we are.
After a pit stop back at the hotel, we drove the short distance to downtown Roswell and the UFO Museum. It is housed in an old movie theater, which should be a tip off right there that this isn't the most sophisticated "research institute" we've ever seen. The young man selling tickets ($5 per person) was very pleasant and told us to feel free to take pictures.
The place was busier than one would expect considering the price and that it is a total rip off. Honestly, this is the worst tourist "attraction" we've ever seen. It consists of walls plastered with old newspaper articles about the crash in 1947. It presents both sides of the story, but does heavily lean toward suggesting that the government covered up a real alien landing. There is also some information on other UFO sightings, abductions and such, but it is all framed articles and pictures. A lot of the pictures look very fake.
There is a big display in the center of the room of aliens in front of their spaceship, a very poor display showing two aliens in glass cases (honest to God, these are just Halloween display quality), and an alien autopsy at the very end. Other visitors must have been buying what they're selling because some people looked very worried when reading the information.
There is, of course, a shop at the exit selling alien souvenirs. Also of course, we had to buy something.
After spending an hour of our life we'll never get back, we wandered across a side street to the "Starchild" shop to buy an inflatable alien. Bill wants a green one, but the museum only has blue ones left. This shop has what he wants and we also got to hear the shopkeeper's rant about his ex-wife stealing two huge jars of change out of his garage. This was prompted by us paying with exact change.
We wandered up the main street to cross the street for a photo of the front of the museum and the alien-eyes lamp posts. There are several beyond tacky shops, all selling the same merchandise. We went into one and found a couple of other amusing trinkets to buy and, as usual, the shopkeeper was very friendly. He said the T-shirt we bought is the most popular item he sells. It says, "What happens in Roswell, stays in Roswell," with the last part crossed out and replaced with, "Never happened."
Down a side street painted with little green alien footprints to lead the way, is the Space Center. It has otherworldly music blaring to attract visitors. A sign says, "It is futile to resist," so we didn't try.
What was a random detour off the main street turned out to be the highlight of the day. A beyond weird, but very jovial, old queen wearing rubber Mr. Spock ears greeted us. He explained that the aliens are out today, so they asked him to sit in, but are we really sure he isn't an alien? Honest to God, that's what he said. He then explained that the Space Walk through the silver lamé curtains is the biggest one in Roswell and takes up "half the building." It costs $2.00 and we'll just say that it is probably worth about 1/10th that amount. However, in kitsch value it is priceless.
It is a winding tunnel of black light paint about 30' long with various unrelated space alien scenes, culminating in a big "window" into space with animated flying saucers. The money is donated (supposedly) to a charity to help Native American kids.
The guy out front told us that someone comes in every year to update the displays. Maybe they do, but it probably takes all of five minutes. He also claimed that it has been featured on TV. That part we believe, but probably not for the reason he thinks.
Anyway, just interacting with this guy was enough entertainment for one day. He was very funny and didn't take himself seriously at all. When we played along it just egged him on. We bought a T-shirt with an alien on it that says, "I probe on the first date." After joking around with the shopkeeper for a few more minutes, he gave us some alien money he says we can use to buy our way out of the end of the world in December. All we have to do it show it to the alien in charge of rounding up the humans "when the time comes."
Most of the old part of downtown Roswell is empty old storefronts, but it isn't nearly as bad as some of the other places we've been on this trip. The newer parts of town are, in fact, very nice. We stopped briefly on the way back to the hotel for a photo of the Roswell Courthouse. Well, that's what it looks like. There are no signs on it saying what it is. Maybe it is the County Seat or something. There are several war memorials on the grounds, so it must be something official. We don't really care anyway, but it is a very grand building for a town like Roswell.
Almost every place of business here has some sort of alien display in or on it. Even the Burger King has a permanent sign that says, "Aliens Welcome!" There is an old, but refurbished, motel across from us that is in a New Mexico style with some aliens out front.
After filling the car up with gas, we went back to the hotel. The plan is to do laundry, but all of the machines are in use, so we'll have to try again later. Our day pretty much ended at 3:00 pm. We'll have to head out for dinner at some point. Being Mother's Day, we'll probably end up at KFC rather a real restaurant, but we'll see.
On a whim, we set up the weather alert radio we bought in Missouri. When we got back to the room, the "Warning" light was flashing and the message screen said, "Severe Thunderstorms." After a few minutes, a very loud alarm went off and the warning changed to a watch. Then a recorded announcement started explaining what it is we are supposed to watch for (severe thunderstorms, of course.) It scared the crap out of us when it went off, but now we know it works!
We changed our reservation in El Paso from the Doubletree Hotel Downtown to the Hilton Garden Inn - University. We don't want to repeat the experience of staying downtown in Amarillo and El Paso doesn't look much better. The Hilton is located in the "Entertainment District", so we're hoping there will be more food options available. If not, we know that brand of hotel has a decent breakfast we'll get for free. It uses 30,000 points per night while the Doubletree only requires 25,000, which does tell you something.
Bill managed to get one load of laundry done. The hotel has several machines, but they were always busy.
The forecast thunderstorms rolled in about 6:30 pm, but it wasn't at all dramatic. We went out in search of a restaurant that isn't jam packed for Mother's Day and found none of them crowded. We went back to the Cattle Baron because we liked it so much yesterday.
The host said there would be a wait of a maximum of 25 minutes, but it was less than ten. We were seated in the bar again, which isn't an issue. They aren't allowing people to sit in there for drinks only because it is so busy. We also had the same waiter, who remembered us. The food was outstanding, as expected, although we spent a bit more tonight, $66.00 before tip. That's because in addition to getting a larger cut of prime rib, one of us added an order of three fried shrimp for $4.99. They were, by the way, fantastic.
It started to pour rain just when we left the restaurant, but we have only a mile to drive back to the hotel.
We were back in the room by 8:00 pm and finished for today.
Day 28: Monday, May 14 - Drive to Carlsbad, NM - Hampton Inn & suites
Come out from under to the zoo at
Living Desert Zoo & Gardens State Park for a glimpse of Chihuahuan Desert
wildlife - everything from mountain lions, buffalo, bears and coyotes to
reptiles, prairie dogs and roadrunners. Head over to the Lake Carlsbad
Recreation Area for river swimming and waterskiing or to Guadalupe Mountains
National Park for hiking trails with diverse terrain and incredible views.
It is thunderstorm weather again today with temperatures in the mid 60's. Our drive today is short, only 90 minutes, so even if it rains it isn't a big deal.
We walked to IHOP for breakfast. There was a bit of a wait for a table, but it wasn't nearly as ridiculous as it was yesterday. The only reason there is a wait today is that they are short staffed. Once we were seated, in about ten minutes, the service was fine. The food is tasty and a good value. We're particularly happy with their new whole grain and nut pancakes.
We checked out at 10:30 am with the same woman who was at the desk when we first arrived. She asked if we had collected any ants to take home, but we assured her we hadn't. It is a long story, don't ask. Both of the women manning the desk have been very friendly and fun to talk to.
The final verdict on the Candlewood Suites: Great! It is a very good value for just $108 per night for a room with a full kitchen. The hotel is fairly new, so it is in good condition with nice decor. We don't mind not having daily maid service when we're staying a short time. We'd definitely consider staying at Candlewood Suites elsewhere.
As for Roswell, the tourist attractions are pretty much a waste of time. They're not kitschy enough to make them worthwhile. However, the town is nice with lots of good places to stay and dine. Plus, the locals are extremely friendly. We probably won't find ourselves back here again, but if we do we'll gladly stay overnight.
The drive to Carlsbad from Roswell is as simple as turning right out of the hotel and arriving at the Hampton Inn in Carlsbad. There isn't anything to report about the drive. It is all dry, flat scrub lands, cattle ranches and alfalfa farms. We made no stops at all until we reached Carlsbad.
Since we're arriving in town so early, we went to the Living Desert Zoo & Gardens before going to the hotel. This stop turned out to be much nicer than the description led us to believe. It is similar to the Living Desert in Palm Springs, but not as large. There was torrential downpour here yesterday and it looks like another may occur at any moment. The driveway in front of the visitor center is flooded.
At the ticket counter, an extremely nice volunteer asked if we want to "brave the walk" today. We assured her we can handle it if it rains again, so she took our admission ($5.00 per person) and launched into an explanation of what they have here. She told us that some other people came back and said they didn't see many of the animals, but we'll take what we can get, no problem. Click to view their Brochure.
The trail winds through various desert habitats that start with Sand Hills that meanders through a Wash. The first animals on display are birds in individual cages and in a free flight aviary. A huge black raven was very interested in checking us out and came right up to the wire to look at us. They also have a Bald Eagle and many other birds. Most of the birds and animals are rescues, but it is sad to see many of them alone in a cage no matter how large it may be.
There are only a handful of other visitors here today, but it is unfortunate that the group behind us includes two small children who haven't stopped screaming since they arrived. Luckily, we are faster walkers than they are, so we lost them eventually.
It is obvious that an unusual amount of rain fell. The walks are recently cleared of mud that is still piled along the edges.
The trails continue, passing various animal habitats. The first houses javelinas. There is a lone javelina in the aviary because it smells like birds so the others in the main habitat keep rejecting it.
The zoo is helping to save the very endangered Mexican wolf. They are much larger than the Grey Wolves we saw near Yellowstone. All four of them were trotting around the perimeter of their habitat when we stepped up.
The Nocturnal Building simulates a cave with darkened displays of reptiles and insects. The only inhabitant visible is a big tarantula. There is a giant bat's head sticking out of the wall that must scare the crap out of little kids.
A large open air pen of prairie dogs is beyond cute. All of them are out repairing their mounds from the recent rain. They are roughing up the soil and building up the cone by packing the dirt down with their nose.
Other animal displays include a female elk who has to bear the indignity of being housed with the bison because she's too desirable to the male Elk. She can't be placed back in the main pen with the herd until breeding season is over and the male loses his antlers. She looked very apprehensive wandering around the dippy-looking bison that didn't even look up as she approached.
The zoo is also the home of a cute bear named Maggie. She was sitting in a big hammock strung out among some tree stumps. Although she seemed bored all by herself, she is another rescue animal. They sell paintings she does from time to time.
Another habitat houses an arthritic cougar who is very vocal and personable. Next door are a couple of bobcats. A diamondback rattlesnake in the retile house was not at all happy when we came around the corner. He stayed coiled up while shaking his rattle until we were no longer visible.
Back in the visitor center, the woman who checked us in asked if there were any animals out for us to see. We assured her we saw almost everything and that the prairie dogs were particularly active. The animals here are the most "friendly" we've seen at any type of zoo. Maybe they are just bored, but they all seemed to want to check us out and interact in some way. We're also sure some of them would tear our face off if we entered their cage.
We wandered into the gift shop to search for our usual souvenirs. A very odd, but friendly, saleslady showed us some ornaments she especially likes, so we bought one. The prices are very reasonable. Bottled water is only 50-cents and soft drinks are 75-cents.
Back at the front desk, the volunteer chatted with us for a while. Then she told us that the road to Carlsbad Caverns is closed due to flooding and we might not be able to get there. That would be a huge disappointment because it is the only reason we chose this route. She gave us the phone number of the park so we can check before we drive out there tomorrow.
Around 2:30 pm, we arrived at the Hampton Inn, just five minutes from the zoo. We half expect that they won't have any clue we are coming because this hotel has shown no availability for a block of two weeks during the time we are here. The only reason we secured a reservation is that we used our HHonors Diamond Guarantee.
However, there was no problem at all. The front desk agent could not have been any more welcoming. She had our key ready and acted genuinely happy to see us. The hotel doesn't appear to be full, but perhaps the rooms are full of oil field workers or some other group who is out during the day.
The hotel is only a year or so old, so the decor is up to date and attractive. It looks slightly more upscale than other Hamptons we have stayed at, although all of them have been very nice. We are staying here on points, so there is no charge, but the rates are high (as they are at all hotels in the city), around $169 per night. Rates include free breakfast and internet.
Our room is as reserved, a double queen (make your own joke here.) Unlike other chains where they stick guests staying on points in the worst rooms, Hilton properties have always honored our profile requests. This is no exception.
Upon arrival in our room, we found our HHonors amenity of a bottle of water and a snack (Ritz Bits.) The room is the typical Hampton Inn layout with nice furniture and upscale bathroom amenities. There is an LCD TV, refrigerator and microwave oven. No complaints so far.
We had some trouble connecting to the free internet, but the problem eventually resolved itself.
We're starving, so we wandered outside to walk to the Chili's Restaurant in front of the hotel. The moment we stepped outside there was a cloudburst, so we quickly ducked into the car to wait it out. It poured for about five minutes, and then let up enough to allow us to walk to the restaurant. It isn't particularly cold outside, so the rain isn't much of an inconvenience.
At Chili's we were seated immediately. Our server was very nice. We ordered a combo of a bowl of chili and a house salad, and the appetizer trio. Everything was delicious and we'd order any of it again. The bill came to $23.00, which is reasonable for what we got, but certainly no bargain either. Due to the convenience factor, we might come back here for dinner tonight. This is a town of chain restaurants, so they're all going to be basically the same. You're not going to find any culinary adventures here.
By 5:30 pm the rain was over and the skies cleared for the most part. Bill called Carlsbad Caverns and the ranger assured him that the road is open and they don't anticipate any problems tomorrow. It was only closed for a couple of hours this morning right after the severe thunderstorms.
Around 7:30 pm we walked back to Chili's for dinner. It's convenient, so sue us. There was a short wait, but once seated the service was friendly and efficient. Bill had dessert for dinner; Dave had a chicken & shrimp combo. The total bill was $33.00 before tip. It was freezing in the restaurant. We never complain about being cold, but this was way too cold. We're surprised any woman would tolerate it for more than a minute or two, but nobody complained.
Back at the hotel, nothing else happened. Well, some elephants clomped around above us for a while, but that's about it.
Day 29: Tuesday, May 15 - Carlsbad, NM - Carlsbad Caverns National Park - Hampton Inn & suites
The internationally known Carlsbad Caverns are the biggest tourist draw in this city on the Pecos River. But before or after you've experienced the magnificent caves, you can round out your weekend with some wonderful above-ground sights and activities. If the thought of caves conjures up visions of narrow spaces and dark, cold clamminess, the comfortable year-round 56-degree climate, wide-open spaces and magical underworld of naturally created sculptures will amaze and enthrall you. In the summer, you get to see another natural wonder - some one million bats taking to the skies from the cave entrance every evening at sundown. Hardier cave explorers can take a side trip to the wilder Slaughter Cave for a down and dirty ranger-led tour.
We are up early this morning because once the upstairs neighbor is up, every footstep vibrates our room. The maids chatting in the hallway sound as if they are in the room with us. Too bad because otherwise this is a very nice hotel with a caring and attentive staff.
The weather today is sunny and expected to be in the low 70's all day. That suits us just fine.
We went to the free breakfast downstairs around 9:00 am. Hampton Inns usually have a great breakfast and this one is no exception. There are the usual Continental offerings, plus scrambled eggs with steak and cheese, potatoes and bacon. The woman keeping the room clean is very friendly. She asked how our morning is going and if our room is nice. Since she's so chatty, we asked her who the clientele is here.
Mostly, the hotel is full of oil field workers and geologists. When we commented that that is probably why the floors are so dirty, she said the geologists are worse than the workers. They come in with mud-caked boots and track it all over the hotel. We have seen this happen over and over, so she's not exaggerating. The floors in the lobby are dirty again the minute they are mopped. It must be a nightmare to keep up with it. There is a carwash next door that is busy 24/7. Maybe the workers should walk through with their truck before coming into the hotel.
The breakfast room here is very attractive. They even have some nice decorative items on the shelves and the colors are up to date. The attendant keeps the room very clean, taking our plates away the moment we finished.
We hit the road to Carlsbad Caverns at 10:30 am. It takes about 30 minutes to get there by simply turning right out of the hotel and taking the road all the way to the park. There are some tacky Indian trading post places along the way and at the entrance to the park is White's City, a collection of dumpy motels and tourist trap attractions. It does appear that the new owners have fixed it up a bit, but it is still trashy.
The road to the visitor center winds up into the hills to the 4,500 foot level. The desert hillsides were burned in a huge fire last year, but there is plenty of new growth sprouting out of the roots. It will probably look good as new in a few years. We stopped at a couple of displays along the way, but none of them was very interesting. We saved a trail to an Indian rock shelter for the way down.
The visitor center for the caverns looks relatively new, or at least it has been refurbished in the past few years. Everything around it was burned in the fire, but it and the historic Conservation Corps. buildings across the ravine were saved. At the ticket counter, we whipped out our National Park Pass and saved the $6.00 per person admission fee. The ranger asked if we want to walk in using the natural entrance or take the elevator (most people take the elevator.) We told her we'd walk, which made her happy.
There are a few ranger-guided tours available at an additional cost, but since they weren't mentioned, we're assuming they are sold out for today. Since we are taking the natural entrance route, we expect that to be plenty of exposure to the caves.
Another ranger told us she just started a movie in the theater, so we went in to watch. It is a Discovery Channel documentary on caves and was vaguely interesting.
If you are able bodied and reasonably fit, by all means walk into the cave through the natural entrance. It is well worth the effort and time (90 minutes), but do be aware that it is a strenuous hike down what seem like never-ending switchbacks that descend almost straight down 750 feet. We had to pass an inspection and short instructions from a ranger on the trail, but other than that there was no delay and hardly any other visitors going this route.
There is an amphitheater at the entrance for the nightly Bat Flight at dusk when millions of bats come out to feed. From a distance the cloud of bats looks like a plume of smoke.
If the cave is busy the entire experience would probably be different. Because it is quiet, the cave swallows at the entrance could be heard chirping. That along with the sound of dripping water and other nature sounds makes it an other-worldly experience. A group of very loud teenagers entered behind us, but someone did shut them up at some point in the descent. Or maybe they ran out of energy. The ranger everyone has to pass does tell you to keep your voice down, but nobody seems to pay much attention to that rule. When the group caught up to us, we stood aside until they were well out of earshot.
The natural entrance route passes several features a visitor going directly to the bottom via elevator will miss. This entry sets up the entire journey and gives a sense of what it might have been like for the first explorers to enter the cave. A short distance into the cave, and down another series of steep switchbacks, you leave the light of day behind and descend into the dimly lit cavern.
Almost immediately, elaborate features start to reveal themselves. Stalactites hang from the ceiling and elaborate columns tower from floor to ceiling. By the way, the colors visible in our photos are not evident to the naked eye. The cave is very dimly lit with fluorescent and LED lighting in natural tones. It is not lit in lurid colors for tourists. Most of the colors seen in our photos are the result of the various types of light and how the camera processes them. In person everything is pretty much beige, white or slightly green.
The walk down is grueling in that you are walking at a steep downhill angle. So, you use all sorts of muscles "backwards". We'll probably be practically paralyzed tomorrow, but it was worth it. The temperature inside the cave stays at a stable 55 degrees year round.
At this point, we arrive at the Rest Area where there are some kiosks displaying the same merchandise available at the visitors center. The elevators are located here, as are restrooms. When it is busier, food is served here also. This is the first thing you'd see if you arrive by elevator, not the most dramatic introduction to the cave.
We bought some bottled water and rested our legs for a few minutes before starting on the next 90-minute walk. The Big Room tour is the most popular because it starts at the Rest Area and is partially wheelchair accessible. We retraced our path a bit and found the beginning of the pathway.
The Big Room is the largest room in the cavern. That's saying something because the ones we walked through on the way down are enormous. There are features too numerous to mention here, but a few include an almost-column and a hanging pair of Lion's Tails. The path continues past the Hall of Giants, numerous columns, and a formation resembling part of the female anatomy. Of course, there are countless examples of stalactites and stalagmites. An area of jumbled formations is appropriately called Fairyland.
Dangling precariously down a seemingly bottomless hole is a wire ladder used for an exploration of the Lower Cave in 1927. Peering over the edge is enough to give anyone vertigo! Those early explorers sure do have more balls than we do. It is intimidating enough now, let alone exploring in the dark. The Lower Cave is completely undeveloped to preserve it for future research. There are over a mile of charted passageways and they are still discovering new rooms today.
The cave continues through room after enormous room. Just a few of the features along the trail are Mirror Lake, the Panorama room, and the Crystal Springs Dome. After passing a room full of thousands of stalactites, we pass by the huge Rock of Ages and examples of cave draperies.
Some formations appear to be dripping down the side of the cave while others are even more fanciful. Other formations include the Doll's Theater which is smaller than it appears in the photo, the Painted Grotto, and the Chinese Theater. The trail returns through the beautiful Big Room, past a wall formation and puts us back at the elevators to the surface.
Carlsbad Caverns National Park should be on everyone's bucket list. It is a not-to-be-missed attraction for sure. We cannot emphasize enough that if you are able, you should skip the elevator and take the time to walk down through the natural entrance. Do not under any circumstances try to walk UP the same way!
Four hours after we started, we emerged in the visitor center. After browsing the gift shops, both of them, and buying the usual souvenirs, we went to the restaurant for lunch. The food is made to order and was actually quite good. Bill had a sandwich that was very good and Dave had the Cavern burrito in a whole wheat tortilla with black beans, spicy pork, lettuce and tomatoes. We were pleasantly surprised by how tasty and fresh everything was. The cost wasn't a surprise for a National Park, $23.00.
We drove back down the hill, stopping at the Indian Rock Shelter. There is a short interpretive trail with signs marking plants that were used by the natives for food and medicine. Unfortunately, most of the plants were burned in the fire. A few have started to sprout and will certainly recover, but the ocotillo and sage appear to be destroyed. Seeds will probably come back eventually.
At the base of the trail is a wash which is what attracted the Indians to stay here. It fills with water whenever it rains. However, even after the torrential rains of this past week, only a few inches of water remain. The shelter is a shallow cave at the base of the cliff that extends about fifty feet along the wash. Evidence of campfires shows on the roof and signs say that artifacts were found to link Native Americans to the site.
We drove back toward the hotel and arrived at 4:30 pm. We didn't venture out again until 7:45 pm when we walked over to Chili's. That plan was thwarted when we discovered at least thirty people waiting outside to be seated. Apparently this is the most popular restaurant in town, probably for good reason judging by the other places we've seen.
Not wanting to wait, we defaulted to a nearby IHOP where there was no wait. The service was friendly and the food, while certainly nothing gourmet, was good comfort food. We both had the Onion Soup Pot Roast, one in a sandwich and the other as a dinner. Surprisingly enough, it wasn't only edible, but good. It probably requires no more preparation than boiling it in a bag, but it tasted good to us. The bill was only $22.00 before tip. This town must be the tattoo capital of the world. Every one of the waitresses had at least ten visible tattoos and the customers probably had twice that many.
We were back at the hotel by 8:30 pm. The slamming doors and elephants walking on the ceiling continue, but it isn't enough to keep us from staying here again if we're passing through. The only other hotel that looks decent is the Fairfield Inn on the other side of the Walmart from here.
Day 30: Wednesday, May 16 - Drive to El Paso, TX - Hilton Garden Inn
For an alternative Texas experience, consider
Located far from the bright lights of Dallas or San Antonio, in the state's
western corner along the sparkling shores of the Rio Grande, El Paso boasts a
different feel than its eastern counterparts. A true melting pot of American and
Mexican culture, the combination is noticeable everywhere. Visit the El Paso
Museum of Art and see American works from the 19th and 20th centuries, as well
as Mexican colonial art and retablos from the 1700s and 1800s. Restaurants serve
authentic Mexican cuisine, Texas barbecue or a little of both. While this fusion
of cultures draws some, the rock climbers who descend on El Paso have only one
thing in mind: scaling the massive boulders of Hueco Tanks State Park. Those who
prefer the ground can wander through the park's interpretive center and see
ancient Indian pictographs. Other popular El Paso pastimes include golf,
mountain biking and stargazing.
We're coming down to the last week of our trip and we can't say we have much excitement in store from now on. We'll do our best to come up with something to report.
Let's start with the weather. It is in the low 70's today, clear skies. So far, so good. We went downstairs for the free breakfast again, which was very good for a complimentary hotel breakfast. All of the hot items and pastries are different choices today. The eggs are pre-made cheese omelets, which aren't as bad as that sounds.
We pulled ourselves together and hit the road by 10:30 am. The drive, without stops, takes about two hours tops.
After passing Carlsbad Caverns, we crossed the border into Texas. The road immediately reduced to two lanes and became bumpy. The speed limit went up to 75. Go figure.
We soon came upon an unplanned stop, McKittrick Canyon. It is part of the Guadalupe Mountains National Park, but we weren't aware of it before seeing the sign on the highway. So, off we go a few miles toward the only mountains we've seen for a month.
This must be an important place because it has a building with actual restrooms, not pit toilets. Click to view the Brochure. There is a nice view of the mountains, but otherwise this is the place to start long hikes. Most of this national park is only accessible on foot. The closest site to the parking lot here is the historic Pratt Cabin several miles away. We're not up for that, so after using the facilities, we were back on the road after taking a look toward the Guadalupe Mountains nearby.
Just a few more miles brings us to our first scheduled stop, the Frijole Ranch History Museum. We saved the $5.00 fee by having an Annual Pass. OK now, the term "museum" is a huge stretch. What this consists of is an old homestead with a springhouse (with an actual working spring inside), stone house/museum, schoolhouse, bunkhouse, barn and picnic area. The park information says "Open Intermittently." You know what that means. It is closed today. Well, the house is, but it is possible to walk around the yard and orchard out back. Exciting, isn't it. The mules looked up briefly from their feed when we walked up, but that's all the thrill we got here. The buildings are from the early 1900's - 1950's, so they look pretty much like all of the ramshackle farms we've been driving by for a month. Did we learn anything here? Nope.
You wouldn't expect us to pass up a chance to take a picture of the Sacred Teat: Mother of the Earth, would you? OK, we made that up, but it is about as plausible as anything else we've encountered during this trip. Enjoy!
The next legitimate stop is The Pinery, the ruins of a Butterfield Overland Mail station that was used for about 20 minutes in the 1800's. There are some stone walls and that's about it. However, we will point out that this is a great time to be in the desert. The rain has caused all sorts of cactuses and wildflowers to bloom. A bright red one caught our attention because it is all alone with no relatives nearby.
As per our usual, we drove through the national park the wrong way, so we arrived at the official entrance and visitor center last. OK, so now we get to find out what it is we've been looking at. And this is it: The Guadalupe Mountains are among the best examples of an ancient marine fossil reef that formed 260+ million years ago. A vast ocean covered portions of New Mexico and Texas back then. Eventually, the sea evaporated. As the reef subsided it was buried in sediments and mineral salts. The reef was entombed for millions of years until a mountain building uplift exposed part of it. Voila! Guadalupe Peak.
Most sites of interest in the park are only accessible by hiking. This isn't a park like Yellowstone where visitors can drive to each place. However, if you are into hiking, this is a good place to do it. The desert vistas are spectacular and the higher elevation (around 5,000 feet) makes for cooler temperatures.
We wandered into the visitor center, causing the ranger behind the counter to stand up in anticipation of actually doing something today. We assured him he doesn't have to make that much effort for us, but he was friendly nonetheless and offered to play a slide show for us. We politely declined and instead pretended to browse the small room of displays about the area. We told the ranger we arrived in the wrong direction, which lead him to assume we had been out hiking all day. We didn't correct him, but yeah, right, like that's ever going to happen.
From here, the road winds quickly down a few thousand feet to the flatlands below. We stopped at a view point for a quick look, but that is the last real stop until we reach El Paso.
On the flats, we passed nothing but scrub land and scary homesteads made up of school buses or trailers for the most part. Signs advertise ten acre lots for $15,000. You couldn't give away these lots to most people by the looks of it. We're sure something sinister is going on out here somewhere.
The only feature along the drive is a dry lake bed that resulted in a big salt flat. A monument attests to the Great Salt Wars of 1870. OK, whatever.
On the way outskirts of El Paso, we swerved off to take a picture of a land scheme office shaped like a flying saucer. Yeah, we believe this is a legit operation.
Continuing into El Paso, we weren't sure that maybe we had overshot our destination and ended up in Mexico. Actually, this is probably worse than Mexico come to think of it. Everything is covered with graffiti, the first we have seen since we left home. Maybe they are just trying to make it feel more like Los Angeles? Anyway, it is gross.
There is an airport, Fort Bliss, a prison (signs along the road advise not to pick up hitchhikers), a police training academy, and the border patrol training school, among other government entities, all in a row on the road into town.
The actual suburbs of El Paso look OK with new subdivisions that wouldn't look out of place anywhere in the country. There are nice shopping centers to match. However, a lot of the town is very rundown. Basically it is a bigger version of Amarillo, so we're very glad we changed our reservation from the Doubletree Hotel downtown to the Hilton Garden Inn by the university.
Not that this area is much better, there are still a lot of old buildings here, but it does look like they are trying to fix it up. The hotel is right at the entrance to the university. So close that there are dorm buildings right behind it. We didn't see any restaurants other than fast food on the way in, so we're glad HGI's have a restaurant, just in case.
This HGI is in a style that blends in well with the area. They're always very nice for the price. We're staying on points, so we don't know the full price. We were greeted and checked in promptly and given our free bottled water and breakfast vouchers. The breakfast at this brand is the best part of it. We'd even be happy if we had to pay for it, but we're glad we don't.
We are in a double room that looks remarkably similar to the one at the Hampton Inn, except the bathroom is smaller. It is the same as all HGI's we've stayed in, so certainly no big surprise. The rooms include a microwave and refrigerator, which is always a plus.
We snacked on the food we're carrying with us to wait for dinner later.
Later means 6:00 pm tonight. We went to the hotel restaurant. Bad choice. The food was fine, nothing special, but not bad for the price. But, the service is abysmal! Really, really poor. Everyone is very pleasant, but it took forever to place the order, then it took over thirty minutes to get it, and then it was wrong. The server realized the mistake and said she'd bring the right thing right away. Easy enough, corn tortillas instead of flour. However, she then served two customers at the bar, chatted with her co-workers, and only then did she ask the kitchen for the right tortillas. It wasn't just us, everyone was treated this way. We've had this problem with dinner at another HGI also, but in that case it was due to understaffing. Here there are three servers for a total of maybe five tables. Something is very dysfunctional here for sure. Service is usually better at breakfast, so we'll see.
Our walk yesterday is finally catching up with us tonight. We were OK earlier, but our muscles are getting sore and cramping in strange places we didn't know we had.
Day 31: Thursday, May 17 - El Paso, TX - Hilton Garden Inn
It is sunny and hot today, in the low 90's. We're told it will rise to over 100 tomorrow and the week following in El Paso. It will be hotter in Tombstone.
Breakfast in the hotel restaurant was fine. Getting it for free makes it even better than fine. This Garden Inn serves the breakfast in the old configuration. Guests order directly from the chef, plus there is a small buffet of pastries, fruit, etc. The ham and cheese omelet was enormous, easily half of a dinner plate and three inches thick. The regular price for this is $11.95. This is reasonable if you like to eat a lot because you can have anything you want. We've never seen them limit anyone.
We took off on our tour of El Paso attractions at 10:30 am. None of them are expected to be must-sees by any means. Our first destination is the Mission Trail area east of downtown. The route takes us parallel to the Mexican border and past two border crossings. The Border Patrol it out in force along the fence. We saw at least ten of their SUVs along the fence and stationed at each gate.
It takes about twenty minutes to drive to the old part of town. It is ramshackle, but many old adobe buildings have been restored and turned into art galleries and restaurants. It does look more like Mexico than the USA, but it isn't threatening at all. We easily spotted the well-marked Mission Trail route and stopped at our first destination, Mission Socorro.
We half expected this to be a park-photo-drive stop, but it is as nice as any of the missions in California. Socorro Mission is known for its pure and simple New Mexican mission architecture, especially its distinctive cloud-stepped façade reminiscence of Pueblo Indian pottery design. The colorful overhead beams (vigas) were painted by the Piro Indians centuries ago. The mission is one of the two oldest missions still is use in the United States.
The interior was restored in 2005, but almost all of it is original. The woods floors were replaced with stone. They made the original wood floor into small crosses to sell to raise money for the mission. We bought one from a very charming woman in the gift shop. She told us that there is another old mission across the border, but "I will never go there!" She traces her ancestry back to the Indians who started the mission and has lived here most of her life. Talking to her made the whole stop worthwhile. She also told us she feels safe on this side of the border, but nobody goes across into Mexico anymore because of the drug cartels.
Behind the mission, across a dusty lot, is an equally dusty old cemetery, also still in use. There are several old pueblos nearby, but we didn't see any of them on our route today. There are, however, many interesting Mexican restaurants in the vicinity, but it is too early for lunch, so we're out of luck.
We continued to follow the Mission Trail signs, passing a huge statue of a native dancer in front of a Community Center. Soon, we arrived at the second of the oldest operating missions, Mission Ysleta del Sol. Contrary to what the guide books say about these missions not being welcoming to tourists, we found the doors open and everything else one expects to find at a tourist stop. Well, except maybe vendors selling tacky trinkets, so perhaps these places don't see much traffic.
Mission Ysleta has a unique dome over the entrance. The interior is similar to the first mission we visited and has been restored to its original glory. There is an old stone shrine in the parking lot, but there aren't any signs to indicate what significance it has.
The next stop programmed into our GPS is the Chimizal National Memorial. We have no clue what this is all about, but it appeared on our trip planning map, so why not? It is administered by the National Park Service, but none of the guide books mention it at all.
The instructions from our GPS were confusing to say the least. We missed the correct off-ramp four times, ending up driving in circles trying to get pointed in the right direction. Eventually we simply disobeyed and stayed on surface streets until it caught up with our plan and took us to the park.
It is apparent this park gets minimal funding because it is in a marginal state of disrepair. There are no signs to indicate what it is about, which may explain why nobody has ever heard of it. Even in front of the visitor center, there are no signs or explanations. We had trouble figuring out where the front door is. We assumed it is somewhere in the vicinity of a huge mural and we were correct.
The ranger at the desk looked totally bored since we're probably the only visitors she has seen all day. She was very nice and explained that this is the only urban national park. It celebrates the peaceful settlement of a dispute over the international boundary at El Paso, TX, and Ciudad Juarez in Mexico. On August 29, 1963, after decades of arguing about who owned a piece of land shaped and reshaped by the meandering Rio Grande River, the question was finally settled by diplomacy and technology. The river was constrained within a concrete channel for four and a half miles, forming a permanent border between the two nations.
The treaty also set aside a portion of the former Mexican land that now lies in the U.S. for recreational and cultural use. Hence the park surrounding the memorial. We told the ranger we had no clue about this park or that it even exists. She explained that they know this is a problem and are working to find ways to get the word out. They only see about thirty visitors per day unless some sort of big event is going on. This is a fancy building for only thirty people. Your tax dollars at work.
There is a history museum explaining the treaty and such, a short video, and not much else. There are offices and a lower level, but we don't know what the point is of this huge building. The surrounding park is mostly used for recreation by locals according to the ranger. They too appear to have no clue what the original point was. The ranger told us to be sure to see the piñata exhibit in the gallery, so we wandered across the courtyard to check it out. It was worth a quick look.
Out front is an original border post. The new border is a few hundred yards south of the old marker. A hillside in Mexico can be seen across the concrete riverbed proclaiming, "The bible is the truth!"
From here we continued to the historic Concordia cemetery. Yawn. It's a dusty old cemetery. There is a map of famous people buried here, but really, who cares? It is worth a short look, but no more than that. It is still in use today judging by the recent dates of some of the headstones. However, many date back to the 1800's.
Our next destination is some distance away north of the city. It takes about thirty minutes to get to the National Border Patrol Museum, made all the more difficult by road construction blocking the driveway. It takes nerves of steel to make the sharp turn on a slope, but we made it unscathed.
Here you can journey through the history of the U.S. Border Patrol from the beginning in the Old West, through Prohibition, World War II, into the high-tech Patrol of today. The museum exhibits uniforms, equipment, photographs, guns, vehicles, airplanes, boats and documents depicting historical and current date sector operations throughout the United States.
We received a warm welcome from the volunteer behind the counter. Admission is free. One side of the museum houses displays of old night vision equipment, radios, and various means of transportation seized from smugglers or illegal immigrants. It is more interesting than we're making it sound and was well worth our time. Even if you don't care about the Border Patrol aspect of it, the items on display are interesting on their own.
Asking a volunteer a question elicited a thorough explanation of the secondary border inspection station we have been crossing our entire lives between San Diego and the rest of California. We've never been stopped, but the woman explained that's probably because we aren't doing anything suspicious or looking nervous. We're also prone to believe it has something to do with our not being of Mexican ancestry, but she didn't say that.
The other half of the building houses old Border Patrol vehicles and a helicopter visitors are encouraged to play in if they are so inclined. The volunteer directed us out back to see a retired boat recently added the museum. Wow, it sure is hot out there! There are also two rooms of memorials to officers who have died in the line of duty.
We were asked if we'd seen the history video and since we hadn't she offered to play it for us. She started off explaining some inaccuracies in the film that are mostly due to an uptick in violent smugglers in the past few years. While the poor economy has reduced the number of illegal immigrants, there has been a significant increase in criminals and drug smugglers crossing the border. New laws now enable the Border Patrol to fingerprint illegal border crossers who are then marked as felons. Before, anyone with no criminal background (which was impossible to verify) was simply sent back to Mexico to try again. You can draw your own conclusions on this, but that's what we were told.
Next door to the Border Patrol Museum is another small museum, the El Paso Museum of Archaeology. There is a trail from the parking lot through a natural setting to the front of the building, so we don't have to move the car. The museum is dedicated to the narration, interpretation and preservation of archaeological and anthropological artifacts through research, exhibits, education, and special programs, with a focus on the prehistory and culture of the El Paso area and the Southwest.
We are the only visitors at the moment (and probably the entire day), so we have the place to ourselves. While it doesn't look like much from the outside, the interior is nice. The woman at the counter said to start with the dioramas explaining the area's prehistoric past, then go to the other side of the museum to view collected artifacts. Admission is free.
The dioramas are actually very nice. They explain the native people in life-size tableaus. We can't necessarily say we learned anything new, but it is well presented for what it is. The artifact side of things showcases a number of prehistoric artifacts. It consists of the usual pottery, tools and other implements you'll see in almost any archeology museum. Nothing wrong with that, but it isn't anything worth going out of your way for either. It is better than one would expect for a free museum though.
We asked the attendant how the heck we get turned around to go back into town. The road construction doesn't allow for a left turn and all we can see is a road going up into the mountains to the right. She told us to turn up the mountain and then make a U-turn at the view point at the top. That's what we did and we lived to talk about it, so it worked out just fine.
It took us about thirty minutes to return to the vicinity of the hotel. The traffic flowing out of town is bumper to bumper, but in our direction it isn't a problem. We drove past the hotel in order to survey the area for restaurants. The so called "Entertainment District" up the road is just a series of strip malls along the main road. There are a number of shops and restaurants along several blocks, so we'll drive back here later for dinner after checking some reviews.
We both came to the conclusion that we've had enough of Texas. It isn't showing us anything that makes us want to rush back and do a more thorough investigation in the future. Everyone we have met is very nice, but we're just not feeling it otherwise. Perhaps we'll give the big cities or maybe the gulf coast a shot, but for the immediate future it is falling off our radar.
Upon our return to our room at 4:30 pm, we found that housekeeping skipped us. We've had this happen at a Garden Inn before and there is no excuse for it other than poor management. We called down and asked for clean towels and a box of tissues, which were delivered promptly. However, we shouldn't have had to ask. We left at 10:30 am, and no, we did not forget and leave the do not disturb sign out. This place gets a below average rating from us.
At 7:30 pm we drove up the street to Cartitas Queretaro for dinner. It has good reviews, so we figure it has to be better than the hotel. By the way, the maids were still in the hallway when we left.
The restaurant is family owned and the food is supposed to be the best you can get. We ordered the Carnitas Plate and the Ranchero Taco Plate, both of which came with rice and beans. The food came out almost before we ordered it and it was fine, but nothing special. The portions are large, but other than that, we've had much better Mexican food at home. It probably is like home cooking since all of the clientele besides us was Hispanic. The waitress was nice, but not overly friendly. Our total bill was only $20.00, which is a bargain for the amount of food we had.
We were back at the hotel before 8:30 pm, and housekeeping did not clean our room during that hour even though she saw us leave. She even spoke to us, so she can't claim she didn't know we left. Oh well, our average rating for this place stands.
Day 32: Friday, May 18 - Drive to Tombstone, AZ - Larian Motel
name means many things to many people. It creates images of gunfights and dusty
streets, whiskey and Faro games, Wyatt Earp, Doc Holliday and a plethora of old
western movie scenes. But what many folks don't realize is that Tombstone, AZ is
a real town with real inhabitants who have lived here throughout its history and
still do today. That is part of the reason Tombstone has been called "The Town
Too Tough to Die"
It is hot and sunny today, but only in the mid 80's here, so not bad. Of course, that's at 8:30 am.
We had our very nice complimentary breakfast in the restaurant with none of the dysfunction displayed at dinner. Both of the servers were very attentive and friendly. The food was again excellent, served in huge quantities.
Housekeeping skipped us yesterday, but this morning they are chomping at the bit for us to get the hell out. They started trying their key in the door at 8:00 am (the Do Not Disturb sign is out, by the way.) They're lucky they didn't knock and ask when we're leaving because that is a huge pet peeve of ours. When we left for breakfast, our DND sign was gone, so we can only assume they barged in the moment we left only to find our stuff still there. Ugh.
We dragged our stuff out around 10:00 am because we have a longer drive than we ordinarily schedule, almost five hours. The final straw for this hotel was the front desk guy chomping his gum while he talked on the phone as he took our keys. He's lucky he didn't ask how our stay was.
The final verdict on the Hilton Garden Inn El Paso-University: Annoying! We wouldn't stay here again under any circumstances even though Garden Inns are our favorite chain. This one is well below average and not at all worth the extra 10,000 points we spent to stay here instead of the DoubleTree downtown. We're sorry we switched at the last minute.
As for El Paso, it's OK. We wouldn't rush back, but it is decent enough and the locals are very kind and welcoming.
We're driving almost the entire way to Tombstone on I-10, so there isn't much to report other than it was boring and it made our butts numb. The moment we crossed the state line into New Mexico, the roadway became smooth again. What is Texas using to pave their roads? Gravel? New Mexico has a beautiful welcome archway over the highway at the state line.
The scenery most of the way is dry, flat desert terrain with a few pecan groves sprinkled in, some cattle ranches, and not much else. The elevation stays above 4,000 feet around here and it is VERY windy. Signs often warn of zero visibility during probable dust storms. There are no problems in that regard today, but there is a lot of blowing dust and whirlwinds all across the landscape. We did climb over some rocky mountains, but the highest elevation was just over 4,500 feet, so not much of a change at all.
On the outskirts of El Paso, billboards for "The Thing?" begin to appear. These continue now and then all the way to the turn off for Tombstone, over 270 miles! Of course, who can resist something so worthwhile that someone pays to erect billboards for hundreds of miles?
There is, naturally, a gas station, Dairy Queen and enormous gift shop attached to The Thing. Admission is only $1.00 per person, but since we bought a T-shirt, the woman said we can go ahead in without paying.
The door leads outside from the gift shop where the sidewalk is painted with big yellow footprints leading into the first of three big barns. The first one contains an antique truck, a covered wagon, some wooden Indians, and various other antiques in no particular order. Back outside, another long foot printed walk leads to another long barn lined on both sides with display cases of, well, just about anything old one can imagine. Again, there is no point to any of this except someone collected a bunch of old stuff. Some of the descriptions are amusing, so they aren't taking any of this very seriously.
Again outside, another long walk leads to the last barn. Inside a huge banner proclaims the resting place of The Thing. If you don't want to know what it is in case you're passing this way, don't click on this link to The Thing. It is obvious to us what it is, but we'll never tell. You'll have to pay your admission and see for yourself unless you cheated and looked at the picture.
There are more odd displays after The Thing, along with hundreds of weird animals made out of pieces of twisted branches. We're surprised they aren't for sale since there are so many of them. From here, we were directed back into the gift shop conveniently near the restrooms.
It is almost 3:00 pm to us, but 2:00 pm after the time change crossing into Arizona (where the road became rough again, by the way.) We're starving, so we wandered over to the attached Dairy Queen and had a couple of burgers and drinks, then hit the road again. The remaining drive is only about forty-five minutes, most of which is after turning off the highway onto a two-lane road leading toward the hills.
The motel we are staying at in Tombstone is right on this main road, so it was no trouble finding it. We're not sure how old the Larian Motel is, but we're guessing it is from the 1940's or 1950's at the latest. It is an old style motel with the rooms around a dusty courtyard. The office is in the back, which is where the manager lives. Other than a new coat of paint and a few other improvements, this place probably looks exactly the same as it did when it was built.
The manager was very helpful, providing a map and marking the points of interest that are worthwhile. She told us which restaurants are the best, which attractions are good and which are bogus, and where to go for breakfast (the pizza place on the corner!) We were handed our keys, yes KEYS, and pointed in the direction of our room, Wyatt Earp.
We booked a deluxe room with two queen beds and a sofa for $85.00 per night. The room is large, clean, and very old, but there's nothing wrong with it. We do feel like we went through a time warp to get here, but it is fine. The air conditioning unit is new and functional, which is a definite plus because it is 95 degrees here. Yes, it is still windy, too.
Oddly enough, the room layout is exactly the same as the dumpy motel we stayed in during our Yellowstone trip through Arco, ID. Exactly the same. It is like deja vu except this place is clean and the bathroom floor isn't buckling. Oh, and they give you shampoo and lotion in addition to a bar of soap. There is also a coffee maker and small refrigerator. And wireless internet is free (as it should be everywhere!)
We rested for a few minutes, and then decided we'd walk across the street into town to kill an hour or so before dinner time. Directly across the street is the old City Hall. The main part of town where the tourist action is is just one street down the middle a block from the motel. It is mostly pedestrian only and is lined with old shops and tourist attractions like the OK Corral & Historama. We wandered into the Historama, but the guy selling tickets wasn't interested in selling us anything, so we left. The last show is at 4:30 pm, so we just missed it. The ticket includes access to the actual OK Corral out back. There is a re-enactment of the shootout at 2:00 pm every day, but we're not interested in that. The Historama thing looks about as kitschy as it gets, so that is not to be missed. We'll do our best to get back to it before we leave.
We browsed a couple of shops, but saved buying anything until another day when we're headed back to the motel. The shopkeeper in one place told us it won't be busy even on Saturday, so don't worry about it. There are a lot of vacant shops and restaurants, but the long-term saloons and shops are still abundant. It doesn't look downtrodden and there is still enough to do to make a stop worthwhile.
After walking to the end of the street, passing several stagecoach rides on the way, we ended up in front of Big Nose Kate's Saloon, one of the recommended places to eat. It is doing a raucous business, but we'll save it for another night. If all of this sounds a bit cheesy, well, it kind of is, but the locals are very friendly and they seem to treat it as a lot of fun. There are a lot of costumed characters roaming around and even eating in the restaurants. Some of them are the actors from the shootout, but others look like locals who like to play along and add to the ambience. Nobody asks for tips or is at all pushy, so it is pleasant. There are only a few tourists wandering around.
At the end of the street is one of only two original buildings, the Bird Cage Theatre. It was one of the most famous honky-tonks in America from 1881-1889. During this time it never closed its doors, operating 24 hours a day. Click to view their brochure for more information.
The proprietress was standing in the doorway and enticed us to come inside when we approached. She is very informative and gave us information on the history of the place. The foyer is free to visit, but if you want to see the theatre interior there is an admission charge of $10.00 per person. She said since it is so slow, we can get in for $9.00 each.
When someone asks where we are from, we always tell them San Diego because no one has ever heard of the town we live in. We said just that and she said she's from California, so she might know. We started with a small town nearby that isn't quite as unknown and when she knew that one, we told her the name of our town. Turns out she went to a summer camp there when she was six years old. That camp is directly behind our house on the other side of a hill! Talk about a small world. She was appalled that it is still in business because as she described it, "It was horrific."
We were then admitted to the self-guided walk through the theatre. It was left intact exactly as it was found. When it closed its doors they just boarded it up and left it. So, when it was discovered and reopened many years later, everything was still where it was left as it was in 1889. The boxes above the main floor are not for viewing shows. That's where the girls did their handiwork for the gentlemen. Back then the charge was a whopping $50.00 which is over $500 in today's money. This was a high class place! They ask that we not post photos online, so we'll just post this one of the theatre interior. We're sure they'll forgive us for a little free publicity. However, we'll reserve the rest of the pictures for our private collection.
The tour leads backstage where they store the original Boot Hill hearse and other memorabilia. Then you continue downstairs to a small gambling hall with a bar, plus an original bathroom and two bedrooms. All of the furniture and light fixtures are original. We continue out the back and into a gift shop, so we did have to buy a souvenir from the somewhat odd, but amusing clerk. She bemoaned the fact that she can't keep up with the dust because of the wind and her allergies are going nuts. No kidding, we're about to sneeze our brains out!
Another block behind the main drag there are a couple of other attractions including a tour of a real silver mine. We're too late for that today, but if we have time we'll come back to it another day.
By this time, most of the shops are closed, so we went up the street to the Crystal Palace Saloon for dinner. This is the highest rated restaurant in town and it seems a little quieter than the other saloon. Click to view the Entree Menu. They also have pages of appetizers and such, but each is a separate file, so we're only posting what we ordered.
Our server was extremely warm and friendly. We ordered the special, a Strip Steak, and the Sirloin. Both came with a choice of vegetable and potato, plus we added dinner salads. The steaks were HUGE, covering over half the large plate, and very tender with a nice spice rub. The total bill came to exactly $50.00 for all of this. We'd definitely go back here and highly recommend it. It does have a saloon atmosphere, so it is very loud with a pool table and the original bar. Of course, there is a huge TV on the old stage showing a basketball game, so they aren't entirely authentic.
By the way, what gives with EVERY restaurant these days having TV's in the dining rooms? We have not been in ONE that didn't have at least one huge TV on. We understand it in a bar, but in a restaurant? Are people that bored nowadays that there has to be a TV on in front of them 24/7? Ugh.
But we digress...the meal was fine and we're stuffed. We strolled back to the motel and were safely ensconced there by 6:30 pm. The wind, heat and bumpy road sucked the energy out of us today.
Day 33: Saturday, May 19 - Tombstone, AZ - Larian Motel
It is hot today, but not as bad as expected. It never broke 90 and a breeze made it very nice out.
We were too stupid to find the restaurant for breakfast down the block (we walked right by it), so we ended up at the Longhorn Restaurant on the main street of town. We were greeted by an amiable older woman and seated in the nearly empty restaurant. It is the oldest continually operated restaurant in Tombstone. An historical building, The Longhorn Restaurant is located in what used to be the Bucket of Blood Saloon, the Holiday Water Company, and the Owl Cafe and Hotel. Virgil Earp was shot from the second floor.
Click to view the Menu. We ordered the Cowboy Breakfast and French Toast. The portions were huge and the prices were not. Our total bill came to about $20.00.
As you may recall, we are going to a party at Bill's cousin's house later today. So, we decided to go to the Courthouse Museum after breakfast to get that "must-see" out of the way. Being a Saturday, the streets are full of cowboy actors trying to get visitors to attend various shootouts, ride in covered wagons and visit museums. There are also more locals out and about, including several who brought horses out for people to take pictures with at no charge.
We asked a shop keeper if the costumed characters are locals and she said they are. They're just trying to be part of welcoming tourists. They don't get paid and it isn't an official duty, just something people do around here for fun. Every one of them we encountered was very friendly, welcoming us to town, shaking our hand, etc. Everyone we encountered working in shops or on the street is the same.
On the way to the courthouse, which is one block off the main street, a young cowboy tried to sell Dave on coming to his gunfight show. Dave let him talk because he was beyond good looking, but we have no intention of attending a shootout. He also told us some other things to see in town and to be sure to go out to the Boot Hill Cemetery. He was very nice and wasn't pushy at all, just friendly.
The Courthouse is the second of two remaining original town buildings. It is now a museum. Admission is $5.00 per person. In addition to some of the original rooms, it is also a museum of artifacts and historical information on the town. There are gallows out the side door and an original courtroom upstairs.
As museums go, it was just OK, so we're not sure how anyone could spend five hours here as a shop keeper told us yesterday. We were there for less than an hour and we saw everything. Click to view their Brochure if you want to know more.
We decided to walk up the street to the mine tour and ended up chatting with the old miner at the ticket booth for a while. He ran down a list of discounts he could offer us until we finally qualified for the senior discount. That makes the tour $14.00 per person. The next tour isn't for another half an hour, so after chatting some more we walked over to the Rose Tree Museum. The cowboy earlier told us to go see it and the miner gave us a discount coupon for $1.00 off. However, the sole purpose of it is to showcase the world's largest rose bush. We passed.
Then we walked through an art gallery where the saleswoman could not have been nicer or more helpful. We told her we'd come back later on the way back to the motel. We want to buy some homemade fudge to take to the party later, so we went to Granny's Fudge where an authentic granny charmed us into buying six different kinds. She is originally from the area where we live now, so she was anxious to chat and was very sweet. This place even makes sugar free fudge, so Dave had to buy some of that, too. She agreed to hold it for us until after the mine tour.
Back at the mine, we were instructed to find a hard hat in a shed nearby. There was one other family on the tour with us, so less than ten participants including us. The guide took us over to a chunk of rock to demonstrate how the miners in those days would bore into the rock. Next he took us to the original entrance to the mine where the vein of silver was close to the surface.
Around the bend is a modern entrance where we all walked down into the mine. The first room is quite large and houses a collection of old mining equipment. Then we went deeper into the mine, stopping at various points for more information from the guide. He was very nice and often asked if anyone had a question. He told various mining stories and explained how the miners worked.
There are miles of side tunnels in this area. Mining ended when it was no longer economically feasible to pump the water out of the lower levels. We walked through several large rooms where they had mined large amounts of ore in one area. The entire mine is very spacious and not at all what we expected. The tour lasted about thirty five minutes and was worth the time and money.
We still had some time to kill, so we went back to the art gallery where the woman was so nice. We bought a couple of handmade ornaments, much to the delight of the sales woman. Then we went back to an authentic Indian art shop we visited yesterday. The sales woman there remembered us and offered to ship anything we buy home for us. We assured that wouldn't be necessary and proceeded to buy a beautiful framed sand painting and a couple of other less expensive items. Then we went back to pick up the fudge we purchased earlier.
We were back at the motel by 1:30 pm where we cooled off and changed clothes. We left for the forty five minute drive to the location of the party. It is a couple of miles from the caverns we have tickets for tomorrow. There's no need to report what happened at a private event except to say that it was nice to see everyone and meet people we'd only heard about. The food was good and plentiful, too. It is a bit too remote for us and hearing the stories of the illegal immigrants hiding in the ravines and knocking on the door in the middle of the night is a way too rustic for us.
Speaking of illegal immigrants, the border patrol is out in force in these parts. The border is many miles away, not across the highway like it is in El Paso. Even so, we had to pass through a very serious border patrol station to get here and we will have to pass another one to get out of Tombstone tomorrow.
On the way back to Tombstone late at night, we passed three Border Patrol vehicles hidden on side roads. We also saw an agent walking around in the bushes in the dark at one intersection. That's way too creepy for us. It would be scary to think you could go outside in your yard at night and find people hiding there. This is not uncommon in this area. No thanks, we'll stay where we are in spite of all the very friendly locals in these parts.
We arrived back at the motel at 11:00 pm, very tired, but we did enjoy the day.
Day 34: Sunday, May 20 - Tombstone, AZ - Larian Motel
Today is more of the same weather wise...hot, dry and sunny. Welcome to Arizona.
Our air conditioner froze during the night, so the reading on the screen this morning is 32. We stopped at the office to tell the manager, so it can be fixed while we're out. She said she'd get right on it and was surprised it happened because it is so new. It didn't get too hot in the room or anything, but it will if it isn't working later.
We went to the Longhorn Restaurant again for breakfast and had basically the same thing. The portions were again enormous and the bill was $24.00. After that we walked over to the Historama show again, but missed it by two minutes. We're taking that as a sign from God that we shouldn't bother with it, so this was our last attempt to see it. The sales lady from one of the shops where we bought a couple of things yesterday waved at us as we walked past her open door.
Our reservation for Karchner Caverns is at 1:00 pm today. We decided we'd go over early since we've finished everything in Tombstone already. We left the motel around 10:30 am, but stopped at the last remaining "must see" attraction in town, the Boot Hill Cemetery. Although this is an authentic 1800's graveyard, it looks fake because all of the markers are new. They've made a half-hearted attempt to age them, but quite honestly, the version at Knott's Berry Farm looks more realistic.
There are markers for the usual people, a guy we saw mentioned in the Courthouse, and many very politically incorrect names for Chinese people in the community. Of course, the 1800's were a different time and the names weren't necessarily derogatory back then. At least there is a panoramic view from here. However, they're lucky the admission is free.
Retracing our route to the party, we stopped first at a "historic homesite" called Fairbank just outside of town. It was a rail hub for Tombstone back in the day, but only a few buildings remain. We spent all of two minutes here, but if you want to know more, click to read the Brochure.
Just after the turn onto the highway to the caverns, we stopped at a garden store we passed yesterday that looks interesting. The owners were very friendly and we found several items to buy. They specialize in fountains and pottery, but as much as we liked some of them, they are too big to haul home. The items we did buy are too big for comfort also, but they aren't heavy, so we'll manage. We might have to throw some luggage out the window though.
Karchner Caverns State Park encompasses a stunning limestone cave that boasts world-class features. This “live” cave, discovered in 1974, is host to a wide variety of unique minerals and formations. Water percolates from the surface and calcite formations continue to grow, including stalactites dripping down like icicles and giant stalagmites reaching up from the ground. Tour guides unveil this fascinating underground landscape during a memorable 1½ hour tour. Tours are $22.95 per person and should be arranged in advance. We pre-paid and booked online before we left on the trip.
There is a Discovery Center with exhibits and a film about the discovery of the cave. Painstaking effort has been made to preserve the cave while still allowing visitors. Tours are limited to 400 people per day. Our guide was very enthusiastic and told the story of the cave in an interesting way. There was a group of three older couples on the tour who could have been cut from a Crystal Cruises tour. The women never shut up the entire time and treated their husbands like children...for good reason. We tried to stay as far away from them as possible, but there were only about twenty people on the tour, so that wasn't possible most of the time.
Most caves are cool inside, but this one is 72 degrees with 98% humidity, so it feels very hot. Visitors take a tram to the cave entrance, which was built after the cave was discovered, and have to go through three air-locks to preserve the interior humidity. In one of these air-locks a mist is sprayed on us to make our clothes damp so we won't shed as much lint and hair as we would otherwise. They have gone to enormous effort to keep the presence of humans from ruining the cave.
Only the Rotunda and Throne Rooms are open this time of year. The Big Room is closed for several months when the bats are mating (or something like that). Ordinarily it can be viewed on a separate tour.
The cave is almost stifling with humidity. The walkway is paved and made to contain whatever we humans shed so it can be rinsed off each night. There are some stunning and delicate formations in this cave. One is a thin soda straw formation 21 feet long. They are so delicate that even walking near it would cause it to shatter.
Cameras are not allowed in the cave, but here is a scan of a postcard to give you an idea of a Big Room formation. In the enormous Throne Room at the end of the tour, the lights are lowered and then dramatically light each feature from different angles. The huge column in the center of the room is over five stories tall, so it is a huge cavern. It isn't as large as Carlsbad Caverns, but because it is a wet cave there are different types of formations. It has been better protected also, so all of the formations are just as they were when they were first discovered. Even scientists are required to stay on the original explorer's trail, so 80% of the cave floor has never been touched by humans.
We emerged into the dry air at 3:00 pm. We never thought the dry, hot air of the desert would be an improvement, but it definitely is. Our damp clothes had a cooling effect that was pleasant.
The tram took us back to the Discovery Center where we checked out a few of the exhibits, then picked up some sandwiches at the cafe to eat outside. There are some attractive desert-style gardens to wander through including an extensive Hummingbird Garden full of fragrant plants.
We headed back toward the motel at 3:30 pm, arriving well after 4:00 pm. Our air conditioner is on, so we assume it is fixed. It does seem to be working properly, so we'll keep our fingers crossed that it doesn't freeze again during the night. It wasn't uncomfortable at all last night though.
We walked to the Crystal Palace for dinner again. The waitress we had last time saw us step through the door and ran over to greet us like we're old friends. She seemed genuinely excited to see us. We both had the strip steak dinner, which again filled half the plate and came with loaded baked potatoes and fresh green beans. Everything was outstanding. The total bill, $44.00 before tip. What a deal! The waitress asked if we are staying longer and thanked us for coming back twice to see her. The nice thing about this town is that when someone says something like that, they appear to be sincere. We haven't detected even a hint of phoniness.
Our motel is sold out tonight with the No Vacancy sign up. It is very quiet though. Most of the guests we've seen are our age or much older. Being full on a Sunday night is a good indication that this place is the best choice in town. It certainly is a good deal and the room is comfortable.
Day 35: Monday, May 21 - Drive to Tucson, AZ - Embassy Suites Paloma Village
fantastic weather, national parks and forests and desert provide the perfect
environment for tons of outdoor recreational activities, this city of half a
million people also has its share of history and culture. With a history that
goes back much further than many of its southwestern neighbors, Tucson boasts
turn-of-the-century architecture, historic neighborhoods, museums and the
Mission San Xavier del Bac, a still-functioning 18th-century mission considered
one of the most beautiful in the U.S. Mexican and Native American influences are
pervasive, and the city has a distinctly Western flavor. There's also a
college-town atmosphere, thanks to the University of Arizona, which has its own
share of museums and a science center. Whether golfing at a world-class golf
resort, horseback riding, hiking in the wilderness, discovering desert flora and
fauna at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum or exploring pre-Columbian and other
art at the Tucson Art Museum, you'll have a mind-boggling array of things to do.
OK, NOW it's hot, 96 at 10:00 am. Not a cloud in the sky either. We had breakfast at the same place again. Nothing to report, it was fine.
We rearranged the cargo to fit our luggage in the SUV, and hit the road at 10:30 am.
The verdict on the Larian Motel: Friendly. It is like falling into a time warp back to the 1950's, but the property has been well maintained and upgraded where it counts. The most important thing is that it is spotlessly clean. The manager is friendly and attentive, too. We'd definitely choose to stay here again over any of the other options we saw in the area.
Tombstone isn't much more than a tourist trap at first glance, but once you start talking to the locals it reveals its charms. Every single person we encountered was genuinely friendly, not at all phony. It is possible to see everything important in one day, but by staying over a day or two we had more time to get to know the locals. We'd come back here, no question.
We planned today as a short one with just one stop to kill time on the way to the hotel. It would only be a forty-five minute drive without stopping.
Our only scheduled stop today is at the Titan Missile Museum south of Tucson. It takes about an hour to get there from Tombstone, mostly on suburban highways. We thought we were in the wrong place because the area is mostly new developments, but it was obviously out in the middle of nowhere in its day.
The Titan II missile is the largest missile ever built by the United States. During the Cold War, 54 Titan II missiles stood alert in their underground silos all across the country. In 1987, the last Titan II site was deactivated. Only one Titan II site remains and is now a National Historic Landmark - at the Titan Missile Museum.
We arrived right after the one-hour tour began, but after we paid our admission of $8.50 per person (AAA rate), the volunteer told us we could barge into the briefing room. There we watched a short film about how the program worked, etc. We donned hard hats and went outside to the missile yard.
The guide was very informative and presented the information very well. Inside the fenced security perimeter, they have set up all of the support equipment that was used to supply the missile with fuel and such. Once the missile was placed in the silo and fueled, all of this peripheral equipment was removed and nothing remained except the huge concrete blast cover and the Access Portal for the crew. Here and there are some hatches where various antennae could be raised before or after a nuclear attack. The whole thing is very sinister.
The cover is permanently fixed in a partially open position and a glass cover allows spy satellites to see that there is a hole in the warhead. This is the only way they could keep it on display without the Russians thinking it is still active. Looking down into the enormous launch site is very ominous. By the way, the missile in the silo is not the original. That one had to be removed because the residual fuel would be too toxic to allow visitors. This one was never used or filled with fuel.
Down several flights of metal stairs we reached the double blast doors, and then went into the Control Room. The guide described how the crew worked, all of the redundant security features, etc. Then he simulated a call to launch and had one of the visitors help him start the launch sequence. Everything requires two people to do things simultaneously to prevent any one person from launching a missile inadvertently or on purpose. Nobody on the site could to anything without a code that comes from the President.
From the Control Room, which is suspended on giant springs to withstand a nuclear blast, we walked through a long tunnel to the missile itself. This tunnel is also suspended and has several expansion joints to allow for movement in the event of a blast. They have cut viewing windows in the wall of the silo to allow visitors to see the missile up close.
Overall, the tour lasts about an hour. It was way more interesting and extensive than we expected, so was well worth the time and money.
By the way, it is now 1:00 pm and 110 degrees outside!
At the museum, the guide suggested we go to the Pima Air & Space Museum. It is on the way to the hotel, so we added it to our plans for today. It took about half an hour to get there with no problem. Click to view a Map of the museum's facilities.
This museum collects all sorts of military airplanes, jets, and other aviation equipment. There are over 80 acres of open displays, plus five hangers. Admission at the AAA rate is $12.75 per person.
We started off in the large hangar attached to the visitor center. There they have collected recent spy planes, seaplanes, experimental aircraft, fighter jets, and much more. At this point, we decided to take a lunch break before venturing back outside into the heat to check out the open air displays. The onsite cafe has a nice variety of made-to-order items, although it is too expensive for what it is. It served the purpose and we were revived enough to venture outside.
They do offer a one-hour tram tour, but we arrived too late to catch the last one at 1:30 pm. It costs $6.00 extra, but we'd rather wander around on our own anyway.
Although it is beyond hot and dusty outside, we walked around the entire huge lot. There are all sorts of aircraft on display...long rows of fighter jets, the Air Force One plane that Kennedy and Johnson used, several B52 bombers, a "guppy" used to ferry other planes around, NASA's "Vomit Comet" used to train in zero gravity.
There are several old airplanes that are rescues of some sort, painted by various artists. We're sure these must horrify the coots who volunteer here, but it is probably better than junking the planes altogether. TWA refurbished one of their Constellation aircraft for display, too.
There are five hangers housing various museums. One is a memorial to a lost squadron, another is a space museum. Still others house gun ships, fuselage art, and Nazi bi-planes. There are way too many things on display to mention here, but we spent over three hours here to give you an idea. And we weren't reading the detailed information. An aviation enthusiast could easily spend several days exploring what is offered here. We found it very interesting and are very glad we found out about it.
It took another thirty minutes or so to get to the Embassy Suites Paloma Village in Tucson, our home for the next two nights. It is in a very nice newer part of Tucson up in the foothills. There are four shopping centers around it, so there are many dining and shopping choices nearby.
We were greeted by an extremely professional and polite front desk agent. She is a shining example of how to properly welcome guests to a hotel. She explained when the free breakfast and evening drinks are, where they are, and where to park...all without being asked. When we asked about nearby restaurants, she explained the various options in detail, assuring us that even in our dusty state we would be welcome at even the finest establishment. We're not so sure about that, so we'll find something casual for tonight.
After moving our car to the location suggested, we arrived in our nicely appointed suite. We're staying here on points, so the room is free. We found our HHonors Diamond amenity waiting...two bottles of water in the fridge, two apples and a bag of pretzels on the bar counter. Strangely, this hotel doesn't have wireless internet, but we carry own wireless router, so the wired kind is fine with us. What is not fine is that there is a charge to use it for non-Gold/Diamond members. We are actively boycotting hotels that still charge for internet access, so if we ever lose our status with Hilton, that will be the end of Embassy Suites for us. As it is, it is very fast and works great, so no complaints.
The room is very nice with a separate living area, large balcony, double queen bedroom and spacious bathroom. This hotel is probably older than it looks. It looks very new, but not having wireless in the rooms would indicate it is fairly old. The TVs are flat screens now, but on their website they are tube TVs, another indication of the hotel's actual age. No matter, it is spotlessly clean and nicely decorated now.
We belted down several bottles of water and ate the free snacks, then rested until it was time to find some dinner at 7:30 pm. At that point, we walked across to the larger shopping center where the desk clerk had suggested we go. The walk is up hill in an area obviously not intended for pedestrian arrivals, but we managed. It is still in the high 90's at this time of night.
Our restaurant choice for tonight is North, a "modern Italian" restaurant. Click to view the Menu. Before we could open the door, the hostess ran out and said, "Come right in and welcome!" The interior is trendy and very noisy, but that's seems to be the in thing right now. Glory be! There are no TVs in the dining room!! The chairs are actually soft and comfortable, too. Our waitress is polite and efficient.
We ordered the Braised Beef Short Rib, the Chopped Salad, and the Ahi Tuna. There isn't anything to say except, "WOW!" This is far and away the best meal we've had the entire trip. Come to think of it, it is the best meal we've had in years. Everything was fresh and, as they say, to-die-for. We ordered the homemade raspberry sorbet for dessert expecting to get one small scoop. Oh no, we each got three huge scoops! We're very happy campers to say the least. The total bill was about $100 including tip and a glass of wine.
After walking back to the hotel, luckily downhill this time, we crashed for the night.
Day 36: Tuesday, May 22 - Tucson, AZ - Embassy Suites Paloma Village
The Do Not Disturb signs here read, "There are a million reasons why you shouldn't knock."
It is another scorcher here in Tucson this morning. There is not a cloud in the sky and the heat is already rippling off the pavement.
We made it to the complimentary breakfast by 9:00 am (it ends at 9:30, what's up with that?) Embassy Suites is known for their breakfast and it doesn't disappoint. A chef will make you an omelet to order, plus there are scrambled eggs, bacon, sausage, potatoes, pancakes and French toast on the hot buffet. They also have sliced melon, bread, bagels, etc., as you'd expect anywhere. The attendant was very friendly and polite. It wasn't crowded at all and there is plenty of seating both inside and out.
There are three stops on our agenda today, Biosphere 2, the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, and Saguaro National Park. We may or may not find something else, so stay tuned. We left the hotel at 10:30 am and headed out of town toward Biosphere 2. The drive takes about an hour.
You may recall the original experiments here in the early 1990's that sealed a team of scientists inside with the intention that they be totally self-sustaining for two years. It failed for a number of reasons, but the main one is because they filled the greenhouses with enriched soil. That would be fine for outside, but in an enclosed environment it caused a large build-up of carbon dioxide. The building has to remain open to outside air now or the same problem would return.
There have been several owners of the property, but it is now owned and managed by the University of Arizona as a research facility. They are mostly involved in studying the effects of water on the environment at the moment.
The approach to the site is along a narrow winding road that only adds to the mystery surrounding the original experiments. The property has been open to the public for quite a while, but walkways were only added inside seven years ago. This allows more extensive exploration that would not have been safe previously. Click to view their Brochure.
We arrived at 11:45 am, just in time for the 12:00 pm tour. The cost for AAA members is $18.00 per person. There is a ten minute walk through some newer housing built originally for students. Then we arrived at an overlook of the huge rainforest biome and the sprawling complex of support buildings, housing, offices, and one of the huge domed "lung" beyond.
The tour entrance is through one of the double airlock doors where we were greeted by a volunteer and told to go into the theater for a fifteen minute presentation on the history and current uses of the facility. A very mellow guide arrived shortly after the video. He was, to put it nicely, very easy going. He has a lot of interesting information to give, but the way he did it was quite boring. Luckily the facility pretty much speaks for itself.
After the film, we went inside Biosphere 2 where the plants brought in originally are still thriving. We start the tour in the rainforest area. All of the different environments were originally open to one another starting with the rainforest at 90 degrees and going down to the desert at 55 degrees. When Columbia University ran the facility, they installed a wall between the rainforest and the ocean section, although it turns out that it wasn't necessary and the temperatures weren't affected by much. They also removed the many animals that were originally in the building because they messed up the experiments and sensors.
The ocean section looks kind of neglected and not particularly healthy, but the guide didn't mention anything about a problem with it. The environment transitions to a mangrove swamp and then to a desert. This last area is cooler and drier than the rest of the facility and it is used for what they refer to as "blue barrel" experiments. These are current experiments involving various plants.
From the desert we descend into the basement into what is kind of like a wind tunnel. The corridor doubles as the air return for the dome above, so it is quite chilly in this area. There are separate air handlers for each environment. Just the ones for the desert area stretch as far as you can see down the corridor.
All of the water and condensate from the air conditioning flows by gravity to a huge reservoir. It is clear water which has been filtered by the natural soil and plant activity it flows through. They do have to remove certain chemicals from the water, but otherwise it is 60% recycled.
The reservoir is inside one of the giant domed "lung" buildings. We have to walk through a long tunnel to get to it. There are two of them in case the first one fails, but so far it hasn't been necessary to use it. The water storage tank in the center has nothing to do with the lung aspect of it. It was just a good place to put it.
A giant aluminum disk is suspended by air pressure in the center of the room. During the day when it is warm the air in the facility expands and inflates the rubber membrane, causing the disk to rise above the floor. At night when it is cool, the air pressure lowers and the disk descends to the floor and the rubber membrane lies beside it. The guide demonstrated how quickly it would deflate by opening the hatch to outside. The center began to noticeably lower itself until the door was shut again. Then it re-inflated and began to rise. The large white dome on the outside is a protective cover to prevent the sun's rays from destroying the rubber.
The tour ends at an experiment station outside where they are testing the cooling power of flat roofs planted with succulents. Two scientists told the group about it and that they have determined that it can reduce the inside temperature of a house by 6-8 degrees overall. After their short talk, guests could stay behind and help them take readings and other things. We opted out of that because we're already behind schedule for our other stop today.
The tour lasts about 90 minutes. At this point we were left on our own to explore the ocean viewing windows around the building. The signage is very minimal, so finding it is sort of hit and miss, but we managed. This area also contains some lame aquarium displays. The ocean itself looks very mediocre with only a few fish in it.
The other self-guided portion of the tour is to view the former human habitat. We walked back in the direction the sign pointed, but couldn't find it. We did see the former farming greenhouses that they are now converting to study the effects of water on hillside environments. It is currently under construction, but 2/3 of it is finished with the remainder to be done by this summer.
Just after we turned around, a volunteer asked us what we were looking for. When we told her, she said she'd take us there herself, which she did. Most of the area is now used for offices, but they have preserved the kitchen and a few other areas the crew lived in when it was a sealed environment. The former farming area is directly adjacent to the living quarters, so it provides a great view of the new slope construction.
We walked back to the visitor center in the 98 degree heat (it is 107 at the hotel at a lower elevation.) It is 2:30 pm now, so we checked the cafe for lunch, but it closed at 2:00 pm, so no luck. Instead we snacked on water and peanuts in the car, then drove off to our next destination, Saguaro National Park.
It took about an hour to get there, so we will have to skip the desert museum. Our route took us all the way around the park to the visitor center. There, some friendly volunteers made suggestions on what to see. They offered to start a slide show about the area, but we're very over this kind of thing, so we declined. Instead, one of them told us to drive back to a scenic loop and then drew on a map an alternate route back to town.
We walked a short nature trail explaining various plants in the desert and showcases the giant saguaro cactuses the park is named after. Many of them are in whimsical shapes such as one that looks bowlegged. Actually, the downward pointing arms don't even touch the ground. All of the saguaros are blooming now. The blooms only open for a few hours, so we are very lucky to find some today. Even dead ones are interesting with a basket-weave interior structure. Prehistoric people use the ribs as poles.
The park preserves thousands of the giant saguaros. Immediately outside the boundaries, they disappear, having been poached for landscaping or trampled by cattle in the past. We took the recommended loop road through the desert. The road is dirt, but not too awfully rough. OK, it is rough, but tolerable, almost.
The saguaros can easily reach over 50 feet tall. They don't start to sprout arms until they are 75 years old, so some of these are very old indeed. With a little imagination one can impart life into the plants. One may look like a big-nosed character, another appears to be waving. The plants continue as far as the eye can see. The rocky mountain backdrop only serves to add to the dramatic scenery.
We stopped at a picnic area as instructed and took the 1/2 mile trail to some prehistoric rock art. Of course, it is at the very tip top of a pile of boulders, but we made it in spite of the heat.
This loop drive, at 15 miles per hour tops, took several hours, so by the time we headed onto the scenic route that was drawn out for us, it was 4:30 pm. Somehow we took the wrong road, but we eventually realized our mistake and turned around. We still can't figure out how we ended up where we did, but such is life. The scenic route back to Tucson winds through some dramatic rock strewn mountains and affords a spectacular view of the valley below.
It takes over an hour to get back to town, then more time to take city streets back to the hotel that is located in the foothills above Tucson. We decided to go directly to the shopping center where there are several restaurants rather than go to the hotel first. We tried to go to the Mexican place, but it had a line out the door. We don't have enough energy left to wait any length of time.
We walked over to Firebirds Grill next to the place we went last night. There was only a five minute wait while they cleaned a table for us, so we didn't mind. However, this place is full tonight also, midweek at 7:30 pm. What is it like on weekends? We're glad to see that good restaurants can still succeed in this economy.
Click to view the Menu. We ordered a cup of the Tortilla Soup and a dinner salad add-on to the entree. Both were outstanding. Everyone we saw leaving had take-out containers with them, which attests to the size of the portions! For our entrees we ordered the Meatloaf and the Tenderloin Skewers. Again, both were amazing and we ate every single bite. We didn't order dessert. Our total bill came to only $47.00 and change before tip. What a deal that was! We'd definitely go back here if we lived close to it. Service was prompt and friendly.
The hotel is across the street, so we were back in no time. We bought some cups of sorbet in the hotel store and made it to our room around 8:30 pm. That was a loooooonnnngggg day for us! By the way, it is still 99 degrees outside at 8:30 at night.
Day 37: Wednesday, May 23 - Drive to Yuma AZ - Hilton Garden inn
On the Colorado River in the southwest corner of Arizona,
Yuma has been at the
crossroads for centuries. Yuma's geography shaped the Southwest. Because this
was the safest spot to cross the Colorado River, all roads led to Yuma for
travelers from Spanish explorers to Okies fleeing the Dust Bowl. Today
Yuma is a vibrant multicultural community that celebrates its rich heritage,
surrounded by wide-open spaces and pristine desert scenery - all with a river
running through it.
Hot, hot, hot!!! Ouch. Not a cloud in the sky either. It is in the high 90's at 8:30 am. Breakfast as usual at the complimentary buffet. The attendants and the omelet cook were all very friendly.
We checked out at 10:15 am. It is 101 outside.
The final verdict on the Embassy Suites Pivot Point: The Best. We've voted this hotel our favorite of the entire trip. The room was large with very comfortable beds and nice amenities. It is in a quiet location with lots of fantastic restaurants nearby. The staff was universally polite and genuinely friendly. This place wins out over the Marriott Willow Ridge Lodge because it provides a free breakfast, but otherwise they are similar.
As for Tucson, it is very nice with friendly locals, great food, and plenty to see. However, we wouldn't live here if you paid us! We'd be willing to stay over a few days at some point, but we're not likely to spend an extended amount of time here. It is just too hot.
We have only one scheduled stop today and it is an hour away. So, we arrived at Casa Grande Ruins National Monument a little after 11:30 am. It is located in a small town in the middle of some very dusty fields. Signs warn of possible blowing dust and they aren't kidding. It was beyond dry and dusty all the way from Tucson to Yuma, but we're getting ahead of ourselves. It is 103 at the ruins, by the way.
There is a charge of $5.00 per person for admission, but since we have a National Park Pass, we got in for free.
Casa Grande was abandoned around 1450 C.E. Since the ancient Sonoran
Desert people who built it left no written language behind, written historic
accounts of the Casa Grande begin with the journal entries of Padre Eusebio
Francisco Kino when he visited the ruins in 1694. In his description of the
large ancient structure before him, he wrote the words “casa grande” (or “great
house”) which are still used today. More became known about the ruins with the
late visits of Lt. Col. Juan Bautista de Anza’s expedition in 1775 and Brig.
Gen. Stephen Watts Kearny’s military detachment in 1846. Subsequent articles
written about the Casa Grande increased public interest. During the 1860’s
through the 1880’s more people began to visit the ruins with the arrival of a
railroad line twenty miles to the west and a connecting stagecoach route that
ran right by the Casa Grande. The resulting damage from souvenir hunting,
graffiti and outright vandalism raised serious concerns about the preservation
of the Casa Grande.
Several important construction projects were undertaken during the 1930’s. The main part of the visitor center building with adjacent parking lot and entrance road, and a new steel shelter roof over the Casa Grande, were completed in 1932. Between 1937 and 1940, the Civilian Conservation Corps constructed a number of adobe buildings to support park operations. All of these structures remain in use today and are now listed on the National Register of Historic Places. As a result, the general physical appearance of Casa Grande Ruins has changed very little since the 1940’s.
Inside the Great House you can see the grooves in the walls where the floors once were. The building was constructed of compacted mud. The horizontal cracks indicate where the layers were added. On the back wall is a small round window at one corner and a square one at the other. These windows line up with the sun at the summer solstice and it is believed this building may have been a giant calendar of some sort. However, don't archeologists say that about almost all ruins? Good guess anyway.
The Great House is surrounded by an eroded wall, at the corner of which is what is thought to have been a private home for a large family. All of the other features are just low, eroded walls. The entire site includes a whole village, of which this compound is a part.
Behind the picnic area in front of the visitor center is an observation platform to view the unexcavated portion of the village. There are some mounds nearby and an ancient ball court. That's the theory anyway. They found a ball in it. There are other theories that it was a reservoir or a place to perform dances, but it is all open to speculation.
We wouldn't advise anyone to make a huge effort to drive all the way out here just to see this, but if you are passing by on I-10, it is only 16 miles off the freeway. It is worth that much time.
Our GPS kept advising us that she has a revised route that will save us fifteen minutes due to an "incident" on the freeway. We didn't want to drive head on into the blowing dust, so we stuck with the original route. We encountered no problems or traffic at all, so we have no idea what the warning was all about. There was an electronic sign advising of blowing dust, so maybe that triggered an alert.
There is nothing to report for the next three-something hours. We drove along dusty I-10, then onto even dustier I-8 toward San Diego. There is nothing out here other than flat dry pasture land, cattle ranches, and a huge solar array being built. We did drive over some rocky mountains, but the elevation was only 700 feet, so certainly nothing dramatic. Did we mention that it is dusty? Oh, and HOT. It was 104 when we stopped in Gila Bend at Subway for lunch.
We arrived at the Hilton Garden Inn - Pivot Point in Yuma at 4:30 pm. This is a large, new hotel that backs up to the Colorado River and the border between Arizona and California. There are two historic sites nearby, the Yuma Territorial Prison and the Quartermaster Depot State Historic Park. The latter is right next to the hotel. The Prison site is within walking distance along a new river walk. We'll explore both of them tomorrow before we leave.
Our room here is identical to the previous Hilton Garden Inn except it is cleaner. Two very comfortable double beds, refrigerator stocked with free water (for our Diamond status), a microwave oven, and the usual amenities. Apparently HGI's are no longer using Neutrogena products because this hotel doesn't have them either (although they are still using the trays with the brand name.) We have a view of the old downtown that is sort of being redeveloped. The hotel is part of the redevelopment project along the river. There is an attractive outdoor pool, too, which is much nicer than we've seen at other HGI's. We're staying here using HHonors points, but our room preference was honored and we're on the top floor (4th.)
We didn't feel like driving around to look for a restaurant, so we took a chance and went to the Great American Grill in the hotel. The experience was quite the opposite of what happened in El Paso. The service was attentive and there was no delay getting our order. Click to view the Menu.
Bill ordered the Won Ton Tacos and the Desert Vegetable Salad. Dave had the Cumin Crusted Chicken with the salad option. All of the food was good to very good with huge portions. The side salad included with the meal was the size of a dinner plate. The "tacos" were southwest style egg rolls we've had before elsewhere, but they were very good. The chicken entree was quite tasty, but the "cilantro" in the rice was parsley, not cilantro. All in all, it was a very good meal and much more interesting than what is offered at most Hilton Garden Inns. The total bill was $66.00 before tip, which is high, but not ridiculous for what we got.
We were back in the room by 8:45 pm with nothing else planned for tonight.
Day 38: Thursday, May 24 - Drive Home
It is bright and sunny again today, but the forecast is for cooler temperatures...all the way down to 98! It won't matter to us because we'll quickly be leaving the desert and making our way back toward home where it should be in the low 70's.
Breakfast in the hotel restaurant, which is complimentary for us, $11.95 for some, was great. Dave's omelet filled half the plate and was 2" thick. They'll make whatever you ask for and as much as you want, plus what is on the Continental buffet. This is the biggest advantage of this chain for us.
Here's the final verdict on the Hilton Garden Inn - Pivot Point: Torture! We swear they bought their beds directly from Guantanamo Bay. Honest to God, these are the most uncomfortable contraptions we've ever attempted to sleep in, hands down, no competition. They're supposed to be adjustable, but we can't detect any difference whether the dial is turned one way or the other. These things are hard as a rock. They also feel like they are inflated in the center, so you always feel like you're going to roll out of bed. It is too bad, because otherwise this is a clean, well-run hotel. The staff is very polite and the decor is the most attractive we've seen at a Garden Inn. However, with the beds as they are there is no way we'd stay here again, even for free. If we were staying more than one night, we'd change hotels. Yes, it is that uncomfortable.
We checked out at 10:30 am and wandered over to the Quartermaster Depot Park next door. The gate was locked, so we're having none of that today. It looks like a park with some interpretive signs in it, plus a small museum, so we're not missing much, if anything. There may be another entrance on the other side, but that isn't in the cards.
The Colorado River is directly behind the hotel. Next to the hotel is the outlet of the Colorado River Siphon that was built in 1912 to get irrigation water from one side of the river to the other. They built a huge pipe under the river and it comes out here. We're not sure why they didn't just take the water directly out of the river here, but they built a dam upstream and that's where the canal originates.
On the other end of the hotel is a railroad engine donated to the town in 1957 by Santa Fe. It is open to explore as you please. There are some brick ruins in front of the hotel that were settling basins way back when (whatever those are), and a few other remnants of this area's previous life. Behind the engine is a fountain and laser projector that replicates the location of a ferry crossing that was the only way across the river. The only remains now are big round concrete foundations on each side of the riverbank. There are some interpretive signs about the use of the river and how it has been tamed by many dams upstream. They also explain the damage that did to the ecosystem and what they're doing now to correct it.
We can see the ruins of the Arizona Territorial Prison across the way where we are going next. It is possible to walk under the railroad tracks and the highway along a new river promenade, but it is too hot for us to try that today. We drove there in under five minutes.
On July 1, 1876, the first seven inmates entered the Territorial Prison at Yuma and were locked into the new cells they had built themselves. At Yuma Territorial Prison State Historic Park, visitors walk through the actual strap iron cells and solitary chamber of Arizona Territory’s first prison. Now a museum, the building houses photographs and colorful exhibits of those who once “involuntarily” stayed there and the prison life they had to endure. A total of 3,069 prisoners, including 29 women, lived within the walls during the prison’s 33 years of operation.
There is a charge of $5.00 per person for admission, which is reasonable. The volunteer in the gift shop told us to walk back outside into the heat, then through the guard tower built over a water reservoir, through the original main gate, and back into the air conditioned museum building. There is a model of the entire prison in the museum along with artifacts and descriptions of life here. From the guard tower, we can get a view of the Colorado River and the start of the Siphon mentioned earlier. The wetlands visible beyond the river are part of a revitalization effort to bring wildlife habitat back.
Exiting through the back door of the museum leads to what is left of the original cell blocks. After a flood, local people dismantled the abandoned site to use the pieces to rebuild parts of the town. Originally, the cellblocks were enclosed and had electric lights and ventilation, a new innovation at the time. Six inmates lived in each cell, sleeping on wooden, and later, steel bunk beds stacked three high. The cells in the center of the building backed to a matching cell facing the other corridor with an iron screen between them. It doesn't sound like much fun under the best of circumstances, but imagine it in 100+ heat.
The back of the cellblock faces the Dark Cell which was used for solitary confinement. It is indeed very dark with thick stone walls and no windows. The wife of the warden started a library for the inmates that was housed in this building also. When they needed more space, an additional yard with more cells was added behind this building. There are foundations of several other buildings scattered around the site.
From the courtyard behind the gift shop (which was built on the location of the guards' quarters), there are great views of the river and two bridges. The black one is for the railroad and the silver one is the first highway bridge to span the Colorado River, rendering the ferry obsolete.
We spent about an hour here, so our drive home began around 11:45 am. The total drive time is expected to be three and a half hours with no stops. The highest temperature we experienced today was 94, so it is considerably cooler today than it has been the past few days. However, it feels just as hot as ever in person.
Within minutes of driving, we crossed the border into California. Bill made Dave drive because we have a package of plants purchased previously and he doesn't want to talk to the inspector at the border. This inspection is within a few miles, but all the inspector asked was, "Do you have any fresh fruit or vegetables with you?" No, we don't, so we're good to go. By the way, the plants we have with us do have an Arizona inspection certificate, so we aren't smuggling illegal contraband. Within another couple of miles, we passed a Border Patrol checkpoint where every car has to stop and speak to the agent. We've been through these at least three times in Arizona and we've always been asked if we are citizens. We say we are and that's it. Same routine here. There are dogs sniffing cars at each one plus an array of cameras pointed at each vehicle along the approach.
The first part of the drive is just like before, flat and dry desert scrub. It is very hazy from all of the blowing dust, so we can't tell if there are mountains or anything else in the distance. Eventually we arrived at the Imperial Dunes Recreation Area. Obviously there are big sand dunes here right up to the freeway. The Colorado River Aqueduct parallels the road here also. It must be a nightmare to keep it clear of sand, but they probably had little choice of alternate locations when it was built.
Passing through the Imperial Valley, that drops to 60 feet below sea level, we can see how all that water is "making the desert bloom" as they say. As soon as the irrigated area ends, we're back to bone dry desert landscapes again until we reach the mountains in about an hour. In this area we passed through another Border Patrol checkpoint...same question and routine as before.
We climbed quickly up to higher than 4,000 feet into some very rocky mountains. They look like someone dumped a big load of boulders all over the place. There is no soil to speak of, only jumbles of smooth rocks. On our right we spotted a weird tower, so we turned off to check it out. It is the Desert View Tower, built in 1920. We don't know why because we didn't pay the admission to get in, but the view from here is amazing. One can get the same view from the edge of the hill as from the top of the tower, by the way.
Back on the highway, we climbed to the summit of the mountain where there is a long line of windmills along the ridgeline. We hear about these on our local news all the time. Apparently they make a whooshing sound that drives the neighbors crazy.
Bill was excited when we passed Pine Valley, home of Erika Kane, so he insisted on taking a picture of the highway sign. By the way, there are indeed pines in the valley, but that's not why he was excited.
Our intention was to stop for gas and lunch in Alpine and that's what we did. This is a local (to us) mountain resort town. We're not sure why because it is only at the 2,000 foot level, but whatever. We expected it to be similar to where we have a mountain cabin at Lake Arrowhead in the San Bernardino Mountains, but it is not even close. The San Bernardino Mountains are "real" mountains with pine trees and everything. It is a cute little town, but it isn't forested at all. However, we found a charming restaurant to stop at, Janet's Montana Cafe. Click for a link to the Menu.
We sat outside on a patio overlooking a lush courtyard. We're very happy to report that the temperature is 72 degrees! No more heat for today. Bill ordered the open faced roast beef sandwich and Dave had a bacon cheeseburger. The amount of food we received could feed four people easily. The roast beef was served on a platter that was covered with half mashed potatoes and gravy, and the rest roast beef over thick slices of bread. Talk about a carb overload! Dave's burger was 1/2 pound and served with a bowl of fresh fruit (or fries).
Dave had a slice (actually a quarter of a whole pie) of the no-sugar-added apple pie for dessert, which was pretty good. Bill ordered a brownie that was 3" high and 5" square. He took half of it home. He also ordered several different slices of pie to take home. Our bill was $45.00 before tip including the take-out pie. Service was very friendly and prompt. We'd definitely recommend this place if you are passing through. We can't say we can honestly recommend allotting any large amount of time to the town, although it looks nice enough.
Oh yeah, gas has been running around $3.59 a gallon for the entire trip. We cross the border into California and it is $4.33.
From Alpine it is another forty five minutes to an hour to our house. Our GPS took us on a scenic route to get from one freeway to the other. We don't mind because we have yet to explore the back country near us. Well, it used to be back country. Now it is the wealthy cities of Rancho Bernardo and Poway, full of tracts of huge mansions. The economy has brought a halt to the rampant development, but the area has certainly grown in the past few years.
Our timing put us on the freeway for the last leg of our trip during rush hour. Luckily there were no accidents today, so we arrived home to our very happy dogs around 5:00 pm.
We're very efficient at traveling nowadays, whether by car or ship. We had the car unloaded within an hour and started figuring out how to fend for ourselves right away. Unfortunately, we're not within easy reach of take-out food, so we'll have to actually cook something later (ultimately that was corndogs out of the freezer). They tore down the Mexican place behind the tattoo parlor on the corner to widen the highway, so what choice do we have?
We've had some time to reflect on this road trip and we'd call it a success. No major problems other than a touch of food poisoning in the beginning, and from the most civilized of the places we visited. There was a week in the middle that was a bit tedious only because the cities we passed through weren't all that dynamic, to say the least. But, we found something to enjoy every place we went. People in all of the cities were friendly and helpful, even in the least desirable places.
Here's our recap of the highlights and lowlights of this trip:
Amtrak Southwest Chief: What can we say, it was an experience! How any business these days can get away with such appalling service is a miracle. The trip itself was fine, the food was edible, and the accommodations were clean and acceptable. It certainly isn't luxurious, but it is still better than the hassle of flying. Yes, we'd do it again.
Chicago, IL: Loved it. This is a beautiful city, no doubt about it. We loved New York, too, but Chicago wins hands down for an overall more pleasant place to visit. We'd go back there again for sure. We didn't love theWit Hotel. It tried too hard to be trendy, but we don't regret staying there. We earned enough HHonors points to enable us to stay at other hotels during the trip for free. Actually, it is the only Hilton-affiliated hotel we paid for. It was expensive, but at least $100 less per night than similar hotels we considered nearby.
Springfield, IL: We very much enjoyed the historic Lincoln sites, especially the Presidential Museum. The town is compact and easy to walk to most sites. We didn't love the Hilton Hotel there, but only because it is very old and dated. The location can't be beat, just two blocks from the important historic sites. Bill got outstanding medical care in town with no waiting...can't beat that!
Hannibal, MO: OK, but not quite what we expected. The locals are very pleasant, which is a plus. The Mark Twain Cave attraction was the highlight. Everything else was a wash. We wouldn't avoid going here again, but there isn't any reason to return. The Quality Inn was a very good value and we'd choose it again.
Marceline, MO: This is a pilgrimage site for ex-Disney Cast Members like us, so we did ultimately enjoy it. The town itself is disappointing and looks very depressed. However, the local people we met and talked to made up for all of that. They treated us like royalty and could not have been more welcoming. The Uptown Theater Bed & Breakfast was, um, an experience to say the least. Again, the owner's kindness makes up for the deferred maintenance. Once we got over the initial shock, we actually enjoyed it.
St. Louis, MO: We were warned by more than one person that we'd regret going here. Quite the contrary, we found it a lovely city with welcoming locals. The outskirts are a bit rough around the edges, but the city center and tourist areas are clean and felt safe. The Gateway Arch is the highlight here, of course, but everything we saw was well worth it. Forest Park and the Missouri Botanical Gardens are well worth a visit. We took a chance on a new hotel chain and stayed at the Drury Plaza at the Arch. It is an impressive hotel in a perfect location. The freebies they offer make it an outstanding value as well. We'd stay there again for sure.
Branson, MO: What can we say, Branson is Branson. We're glad we saw it, but we wouldn't go out of our way to stay there again. We loved Silver Dollar City. They have the friendliest employees on the planet (and probably the oldest, too). The other attractions in Branson aren't our cup of tea, but there is plenty to look at without them. The tornado damage was very interesting to see in person. Our hotel, Marriott's Willow Ridge Lodge, was one of our favorites. We'd never buy a timeshare there, but it is a very nice resort with condo-like rooms that are an amazing value. We're very glad we didn't stay at the Hilton, which was our original choice.
Fort Smith, AR: We enjoyed talking to the coots, er, volunteers, at the Trolley Museum, but this is a very odd little town. The historic sites are mildly interesting, but not worth much effort to see. Everyone except the front desk clerk at the Courtyard by Marriott was very nice. As for the hotel, it is beautiful in and of itself, but the staff needs hospitality training. We would avoid stopping here again. We've seen it and it didn't wow us. This town started the tedious portion of the trip.
Oklahoma City, OK: Better than expected. The entire city center is being redeveloped and when it is finished it should be a showplace. Our visit to the bombing memorial and museum was more interesting than we expected and is highly recommended. The Bricktown area where we stayed is very nice with lots of restaurants available. We loved our meals at Toby Keith's Grill. The Residence Inn was also very nice. It is obviously managed well and was very clean. We'd choose it again. We saw all of the attractions in town, but if we need a place to stop on the road again, we'd be happy to stay in the city.
Amarillo, TX: This town wins as the worst place we visited. There is no reason to stop here again and, if fact, we would actively avoid doing so. Nothing untoward happened to us and the locals are friendly, but it has an uncomfortable undercurrent. They are trying to revitalize the downtown area where we stayed, but they have a long way to go before we'd recommend staying there. We sure wouldn't stop again. The Courtyard by Marriott was fine, but we wish we had been able to stay in Canyon instead as we originally intended. We missed Palo Duro Canyon due to a storm, but even if we had seen it we doubt our impression would improve much. This is a town to be avoided if at all possible.
Roswell, NM: We're not sorry we stopped here, but we've seen it and we're over it. The UFO Museum is totally disappointing unless you are VERY into the whole event. The town itself was nicer than expected. There are a lot of nice restaurants and the people, although odd, are very endearing and welcoming. The Candlewood Suites was very nice with pleasant staff. We've added this chain to our short list of preferred choices. We'd stay there again, although we probably won't have any reason to visit Roswell again.
Carlsbad, NM: For most people, the only reason to come here is for the famous caverns. And yes, they are well worth going out of the way to see. They should be on everyone's bucket list, in fact. We're very glad we finally planned a route where it was possible to fit in a visit. The town isn't much, mostly industries supporting the oil fields nearby. However, for an overnight or two, it is fine. The Hampton Inn was as nice as we expected and we'd choose it again.
El Paso, TX: This is another throw-away stop. There is nothing nearby worth going out of your way to see. We enjoyed what we did visit, the Border Patrol Museum and the Mission Trail in particular. But, there is nothing in the downtown area worth looking at. If we absolutely had to stop here again, we'd choose from the cluster of chain hotels by the airport instead of in downtown. We hated the Hilton Garden Inn here and would not choose it again, even for free.
Tombstone, AZ: Sure, this is a tourist trap, but the locals are extremely friendly and helpful. Even the "cowboys" trying to sell tickets to their shoot-out shows are nice. We liked the mine tour and had some great meals in the Crystal Palace Saloon. The shopkeepers were beyond welcoming in a sincere way, not just to sell us something. Everyone we had the pleasure of chatting with was very hospitable. Kartchner Caverns is well worth going out of your way to see, but be sure to book online in advance. It isn't Carlsbad Caverns by any stretch, but it has charms all its own. We even liked the retro Larian Motel and would stay there again.
Tucson, AZ: We stayed in a newer, upscale area and it was very nice. It is also very hot, very dusty, and very dry. No thanks. We had two of the best dinners of the entire trip here, and we did enjoy touring Biosphere 2. We also voted the Embassy Suites Paloma Village the winner out of all of the hotels this trip. We probably wouldn't make a point of going to Tucson again, but if we are passing this away again we wouldn't avoid it either. It would be a decent place to just crash in a nice hotels for a few days.
Yuma, AZ: This town is mostly just a place to rest for a night on a long drive, which is what we used it for. However, there are a few historic sites worth looking at also. We didn't like the Hilton Garden Inn Pivot Point because the beds were horrendous, so we had bad luck this trip with our usually favorite chain. We'd stop in this town again for the same purpose, but we'd stay someplace on the hotel strip by the mall next time.
We thoroughly enjoyed our surprise stops at various roadside attractions. That's the whole point of a road trip, isn't it? Fantastic Caverns and Meramec Caverns were both worth the effort to get to. Maybe they're not a life-changing experience, but they're charming old family-run attractions. We recommend both of them.
Luck was definitely with us regarding meals this trip. Well, that's assuming we overlook the unfortunate food poisoning incident in Chicago. We know where that came from, but the meal was very good, so it must have been a freak thing. Or, we hope so. We had some of the best, and least expensive, food we've had on any road trip before. The prices probably reflect the remote locations more than anything else, but even in the big cities the prices weren't as ridiculous as they were during the Yellowstone road trip. Remember the $65.00 meal at Chili's? We had none of that this time, even at Chili's. We only broke the $100 mark once and that meal was well worth it.
If you are into statistics, our route took us a total of 3,250 miles, not including the rail travel. Our planning software calculates that our total driving time was about 25 hours. We do try to limit our actual drive time to no more than three hours per day, but we did have several segments of up to five hours. We'll continue to try to avoid those long stretches unless there are interesting stops on the way. We're not as young as we used to be!
Our new GPS, a Garmin unit, is different than the one we had last time (Magellan), but it got us there without too much hassle. This one is more polite, but doesn't warn us soon enough to make the turns properly. However, it does tell us in advance which way we'll have to turn after exiting on a ramp, which is something the other one didn't do. All in all, this one is slightly better than the Magellan, but not significantly so.
You may recall that we had some concerns about our old dog before we left, but we're happy to report he is doing great. He survived just fine and seems as happy as ever. He's less worse for wear than his younger counterpart. Let's hope everyone holds up so we can begin planning our next adventure!
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