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Thursday, September 9, 2021

The Long Ride East

The Long Ride East

3444 Miles. That’s the distance from Bend, Oregon to Venice, Florida, via the “southern route” across the United States. Having explored several possibilities for the logistical nightmare of transporting ourselves and our cat Emily to the new home in Florida, we finally settled on the three of us making the drive in my new Honda Civic Touring.

Several options had been considered, including driving a big truck ourselves, towing one vehicle and driving the other. But we simply have too much stuff to fit into a single 26-foot truck. As much as we tried to sell, give away, or throw away as much as we could, we still had a 3000-square foot house full of our collective worldly goods, and there was just no way to cram it into a single non-commercial moving truck.


Next option was for Risa to fly, with Emily sufficiently sedated on “kitty-downers,” in a carry-on kennel. The hitch in this plan was the necessity of flying out of the tiny Redmond Airport in a turbo-prop plane with zero storage under the seat, a layover of at least an hour in Portland or Seattle, then boarding and flying for another six hours, to Tampa. This would also mean that since I would have to pick them up in Tampa (an hour and a quarter from our new home), that I would have to make the five or six-day trip across the country alone, and Risa and Emily would need a place to stay in Bend, for that additional amount of time. Logistical nightmare number two didn’t seem any better than the first.


We eventually settled on using a nationwide moving company to load, haul, and unload our 15,000 pounds of stuff (United Van Lines, who I highly recommend, by the way), and Risa, Emily, and I, driving the Honda cross-country. Logistical nightmare number three became deciding which route to take from Bend to Venice, given the iffy nature of Oregon winters (as well as many other areas in the middle of the country). We’d already experienced over four feet of snow, and the roads were varying degrees of miserable to drive on. Plus, there was a good chance we’d hit some bad patches of weather if we took the most direct route, which would have taken us through Idaho, Utah, Wyoming, and Colorado. We’d save a little over 400 miles by doing this but running the risk of significant winter weather wasn’t worth it, given the length of the trip and the fact that we simply needed to “get there” as quickly as possible.


We decided that the southern route would be the safest and most predictable way to go, and if we could get to Weed, California without any problems, we’d probably have an easy go for the rest of the ride east. But with winter in central Oregon being the unpredictable beast that it is, we woke up to a new blanket of snow on the ground for the day of our move, and the local weather forecasts were citing Winter Storm Warnings from just south of Bend, all the way to Klamath Falls, which is 135 miles south. But we really had no choice in the matter and hoped that it would melt sufficiently for us to get out of town by the time we had planned to leave, which was mid-afternoon. I specifically added a day to the trip for just this reason; leave in the afternoon, and only drive as far as Redding, California the first day. This would allow us to slow down (or creep along) if we encountered any major snow or ice and would also allow the cat to become somewhat used to the car (we were clearly dreaming, on this part of the equation).

The movers were about 90% loaded by mid-afternoon, and my sister was kind enough to hang around the house, sign all the necessary paperwork, and lock the house up for us. By 2:30, we were on the road headed south, with Emily unhappily riding in her large kitty-condo in the back seat, and the car pretty much packed to the gills with the few necessities we’d need for the following week of travel and our initial couple nights in the new house. This was the first and only leg of the trip, that Emily did not get a morning dose of kitty-downers, which made her day in the kennel, and our day in the front seat, much more bearable.


So off we went, leaving twelve years of life in Bend, behind us. We would surely miss our friends, but I’m confident that many will come visit. I have a sneaking suspicion that the guest room will see quite a bit of use in the winter months, when Central Oregon is getting snow and sub-freezing temperatures, and Florida is generally in the mid-seventies or higher. We’ll also miss a few of our local haunts, not the least of which will be the abundance of local craft breweries and brewpubs. And the only consolation to missing summer kayaking on the Deschutes River and the Cascade Lakes, was the prospect of year-round kayaking in the canals of Venice and the intracoastal waterways.

I’d arguably over-planned the trip, with many possible routes across the country. It became an Excel spreadsheet (like most projects in my life), with lots of variables. The quickest way was across the middle, which would have in fact saved us around 400 miles. But it was winter, and a nasty snowy one at that, and common sense dictated that we take a southern route, via Highway 10. But even this route required a couple different scenarios, depending on when we left on moving day, and what the weather was like at that time. As it was looking like we would likely not get out of Bend until mid-afternoon, and there was a good chance we were going to get some snow, either locally, or somewhere along the first day of travel, I opted to only go as far as Redding, CA and a very familiar La Quinta where we’d stayed a dozen times over the years. Nothing luxurious, but predictable, affordable, and clean. And two minutes of the highway, which meant an easy start in the morning.


A word about La Quinta’s: I’ve stayed at them a lot over the years. Whenever I traveled with any of my companies, it was always my first choice, when I didn’t know the other hotels in a particular area. And for this trip, I could plan the trip based on spacing of La Quinta’s. They even provide an easy way to do this, right on their website. It made for some longer, and some not-so-long travel days, but I knew they’d be predictably clean, convenient to the roads we were traveling, and they accept pets. This was a big concern, as our kitty Emily was making the trip with us, and unlike her driver and passenger in the front seat, she does not like traveling in the car. They varied in quality on this trip, but overall, they ranged from ok to exceptionally nice, and I’d recommend them without question.


The trek from Bend to Redding was surprisingly uneventful. There were some stretches of Highway 97 that had evidence of a little ice, and it was full of recent snow on both sides of the road until we got to Weed, California. From there to Redding, the ride through the Siskiyou’s was a piece of cake. No ice, no snow, and I hope to never see either, ever again, any place I live or travel. Twelve winters in Central Oregon was twelve too many. My friend Marie, who hails from Cape Cod, Mass had a saying that I’ll never forget. To paraphrase … “It’s great to see the first snow of the season fall before the holidays, but when you’re still shoveling your driveway to go to work in May, it gets a little old.”


From Redding, we headed down wide-open Highway 5 through northern California’s Sacramento Valley. 70 MPH speed limits and beautiful weather made for a great travel day. A stop for one last killer sandwich at Granzella’s Deli in Williams was a must, as this might be the last time, I get to partake in one. Salami and Swiss on a sourdough roll, as always.


A word or two about the music for this trip: The new Honda (like lots of new cars) lets you plug in a thumb drive or any Bluetooth device, and the music selections appear right on the navigation screen. I had loaded a 64-gigabyte drive with a wide variety of music that ran the gamut from Adele to ZZ Top, and everything in between. Plus, I had opted for a pitch from Sirius XM that gave me six months of satellite radio for an uncannily low price. I knew I’d be driving cross-country and thought this would be a well-spent thirty bucks. Lots of options, great stations, but the fact that they repeat things on virtually all the stations became evident very quickly. I enjoyed having this option on the long trip, but I did not renew the contract when it came up last month. Suffice it to say that between the thumb drive and Sirius, we were thoroughly entertained for the duration of the excursion.


After a seemingly endless drive down scenery-challenged Highway 5 through the Central Valley, we veered off towards Highway 99 and the La Quinta in Bakersfield, where we’d spend the second night. This La Quinta wasn’t the best. In fact, while it was technically clean and had the same amenities as all of them, it was kind of run down and appeared to be an older hotel that they “bought,” as opposed to the new construction that most of them featured. But we’d live. Dinner next door at a great Mexican restaurant included a combo plate and a Corona, which hit the spot.

Early on day three, we were once again on the road, first on a series of secondary highways, ultimately to Highway 10, which we’d stay on until we ran into 75, in northern Florida. Lots of Highway 10 ahead!


This was going to be a long day. A little over 600 miles of freeway, to the far side of Tucson, Arizona. We arrived after dark, tired and hungry, to an excellent La Quinta. A quantum leap from the Bakersfield location, this felt like a luxury hotel. A big atrium in the check-in area led to several staircases and elevators to the second level, which is where our room was located. Beautiful, big, clean, inviting, this was a gorgeous place to stay. Dinner at the steakhouse located within the hotel next door was also excellent. A steak and a martini hit the spot after a long day of travel. Then it was back to the room, where we tried to console and reassure our cat Emily, who didn’t know what the heck was going on with her normally predictable life.


I could have stayed at the Tucson La Quinta for several days, but unfortunately, we had a schedule to keep. So … it was back onto Interstate 10 in the morning, with Fort Stockton, Texas being our next overnighter. 556 miles across Arizona, New Mexico, and half of Texas. Spectacular scenery, a little rain, but otherwise minimal weather issues, and a long trip. We saw signs in Arizona that warned of gusty winds, dust storms, and possible closures, but luckily saw none of them.


Arizona and New Mexico are rich with mountains and scenery that could provide a lifetime of exploration in themselves. I’d been to Phoenix several times for training on the Fujitsu telecom systems I used to deploy and support, and always enjoyed my stays at the Hilton at South Mountain. The onsite steakhouse was called Rustler’s Roost, and they featured some of the best steaks and prime rib I’ve ever eaten, as well as an incredible (and hot) horseradish that was grown on the property. All this was back in my high-tech days, which seems like a lifetime ago. Phoenix was always warm, occasionally unbelievably so. During the summer months and 100-plus degree temperatures, you find yourself either standing in a pool, or inside somewhere with air conditioning. You don’t “lay out and get a tan” in Phoenix. At least in the summer.

New Mexico, on the other hand, was new to this traveler. We crossed the state line near Lordsburg, and headed toward Las Cruces, then south to El Paso, and the vast expanse known as Texas. Very interesting bit of scenery, with a big (already built) fence separating the U.S. with its friendly Mexican neighbors to the south. Having grown up in San Francisco, gone to college in San Diego, and taken literally dozens of trips to both upper and lower Baja, I have always found Mexico and its people to be stellar. We strongly considered a move to La Paz, on the lower Baja peninsula, before deciding on the trek to Florida. Still may happen someday. Who knows?


Just outside of El Paso was the single government stop / checkpoint of the entire trip. I’d always thought it was interesting that California stops and inspects all the cars coming into the state, but I’ve never encountered it coming or going in any other states. But the stop outside of El Paso was serious. I gather that due to the proximity to the Mexican border, there is a lot of smuggling of people and contraband, and they want to catch what they can. I have no problem with this; our car was free of anything resembling what they might be interested in, and I had no problem with them looking underneath the Honda with mirrors, or with the dogs that were frantically going about their business of sniffing for anything illegal. The dogs and the feds were doing their job, I appreciate them doing so.


From there, it was onward through what would be a two-day trek through Texas. That night’s stop was to be in the booming community of Fort Stockton, which is pretty much in the middle of nowhere. But they had a La Quinta, as well as a decent restaurant or two, and it was pretty much the only place with both of those necessities for several hundred miles in any direction. A great steak and baked potato, awesome salad bar, and a beer, at K-Bob’s Steakhouse, hit the spot.


As someone who absolutely loves to drive, particularly out on the open highway, Texas is a dream. As soon as you cross the border you immediately see the 80 MPH speed limit signs. Only place along our route where we got to open the car up, somewhat. A constant 80-85 MPH lowered our mileage to “only” 35 MPG for this part of trip, but it was well worth the small sacrifice in cost.


Day two in Texas took us through a long stretch of open road that featured everything from mountains to vast fields of wind generating devices, to major stretches of flat open highway. We headed to and through San Antonio, then east toward Houston, where we encountered the first of a couple of hiccups, of sorts. The rain had been pounding for a good portion of the day, and by the time we got to downtown Houston, we were ready to reach our destination for the day, have some dinner, and hit the hay. But without any warning, the entire highway came to a complete stop, and traffic was detoured off of Highway 10, through a portion of the downtown area, and back on to the highway, via a bizarre circuitous route. This cost us about an hour, and I wasn’t amused.


Once back on Interstate 10, it was off to the town of Winnie, Texas, with way too much traffic and persistent downpours to make our life a little more interesting. But I knew, if nothing else, we would have a great meal this night. My friend Mike Blanton grew up near here, likes the same kind of food as I do, and his recommendation to go to Al-T’s Seafood and Steakhouse was bound to be a good one. Excellent Cajun food, steaks, a variety of seafood, casual atmosphere, good prices, friendly servers, and I couldn’t have been happier, particularly after this very long waltz across Texas. I would go to bed tired, but full. Highly recommended if you ever find yourself in this part of Texas. Quite likely the best meal we had on the entire trip.


From Winnie, we skirted along the gulf states for what would be the longest leg of the trip; 645 miles to Tallahassee, Florida. This was a tiring, but interesting day through a part of the country I’d never visited before. Across Louisiana, through Lafayette and Baton Rouge, and then a slight detour onto Highway 12, that took us up and around New Orleans and avoided lots of traffic and congestion. Then it was back onto 10, through the lower part of Mississippi, where we encountered the second (and final) hiccup of the trip. Traffic slowed and eventually came to a complete halt due (we were to discover) to a fire that was raging along the highway a few miles ahead. My navigation unit warned me that there was going to be a delay but didn’t offer any reason for it. The suggested detour turned out to be the correct one, and while it cost us an hour of travel time on an already long-haul day, it also gave us the opportunity to see some of the backroads of rural Mississippi. A small, but interesting detour, for sure.

And then through Alabama. My maternal grandfather was born in Mobile, and it felt sort of special driving through it. Some of the stories he told us about growing up in the backwoods outside of Mobile, were priceless. Suffice it to say, he didn’t have a boring upbringing. Amazingly, his incorrigible youth led to a relatively normal adult life, first in the Navy, then as a stationary engineer for a huge commercial laundry in San Francisco. His given name was Noah Edgar Dean; a name he hated his whole life. My grandmother called him “Norm,” and everyone else just called him Dean. He was “Grandpa Dean” to us. And he cooked a mean pot of chili.


But alas, we were on a mission, and still had quite a trek until we arrived in Florida’s capital city. We managed to do it, arriving in Tallahassee right around sunset, on a clear, beautiful night. We had made it to Florida, and this would be the last night of travel, and the last La Quinta for a while. And the last sleepover in a strange place for poor Emily, who behaved incredibly well on this big adventure. Thanks to the afore-mentioned “kitty downers” she slept all day in her comfortable kennel in the back seat. And every night she was rewarded with her usual kitty treats (Temptations, they’re called), a bowl of her favorite food, fresh water, and access to her sandbox.


By the time we got settled into the La Quinta, fed Emily, and made sure that she was safe and sound, it was about 8:30 PM. We headed up Monroe Street in search of some Italian food, which we were both craving. Bend had some very good restaurants, but Italian food was very poorly represented, and is in fact one of the huge draws to Venice, where the choices are limitless. We found a restaurant that was due to close in about fifteen minutes, and they kindly sat us, and assured us that there was no rush … take your time, enjoy your dinner, welcome to Florida!


The final day of travel was designed to be shorter than the previous five, and just slightly longer than the first afternoon, when we drove from Bend to Redding. The primary leg of the trip was also purposely short, but for different reasons; it was a test of how Emily would react to hours in the car, and a hedge against any potential weather delays. As it turned out, she was fine, as was the weather. This last day in the car for the three of us would be a relatively short jaunt of 325 miles, and all of it in our new home state of Florida.


Florida “feels” like Florida. The flat terrain, ever-present bodies of water of every shape and form, wide open freeways, and of course the gorgeous weather, make it unmistakable. Today’s journey would take us along the last bit of Highway 10, which we’d spent the last five days, and nearly 3000 miles, traversing the country. At the junction of Interstates 10 and 75, we’d head south for the final 265 miles of this very long trip. Just above Lake City is the turnoff point, and we were finally on 75 south; a road we knew very well from the previous two trips. Interstate 75 is a gorgeous highway, with optional turnoffs to the main populated areas of Tampa and St. Petersburg, or the direct route … our route, directly south. The only “unfortunate” thing about taking 75 instead of 275, is that we’d miss the beautiful ride over Tampa Bay on the incredible Sunshine Skyway Bridge, which is just south of St. Petersburg. It’s most impressive at night, but even during the day, it presents itself in all its glory, and is a sight to behold. And this is coming from someone who was raised within ten miles of the Golden Gate Bridge.


Once we were south of the 75 / 275 merge, it was clear sailing all the way to Venice. The highway has just blended into one long road at this point, and the anticipation of being in our new home, and off the highways of the United States, was almost too much to bear. We passed the huge University Town Center Mall at exit 213, and began the countdown to our exit, which was 193. Then it was west on Jacaranda Boulevard, past the major artery of Highway 41 / Tamiami Trail, which Google Maps shows as originating somewhere in upper Kentucky and ends in Miami. Long, long secondary highway. Across 41, half a mile south to 776 (Englewood Road), and a final mile south, and we were home. We had timed this day accordingly, so we’d have plenty of time to catch the salespeople at work (it’s a new house), and get our keys, garage door openers, etc.


So here we are, Risa, Emily, and me, in the new home in Venice, Florida.

The statistics: Six travel days, nine states (Oregon, California, Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and Florida), 3444 total miles, 39 miles per gallon overall average. Except for some rain in Texas, the weather was excellent the whole way. The new Honda Civic (Touring model) was perfect; the sunroof was open most of the time, the navigation system worked flawlessly, the killer sound system kept us awake and moving towards our daily driving goals. Our kitty Emily was an angel the whole way, even if she took great pains to find some sort of a hiding place under or behind several of the beds in the various La Quinta’s. The hotels ranged from marginal (Bakersfield) to first rate (Tucson), with the remaining ones being like most of the La Quinta’s across the country; clean, predictable, affordable, and pretty much indiscernible from one-another, including identical (free) breakfasts in their lobbies.


I’d never crossed the country by car in the past. I’ve driven extensively up and down both coasts, and quite a bit through big chunks of Colorado and lower Wyoming, but never cross-country. It’s an adventure, and given the time, a reliable car, good toons, and ideally a good traveling companion (or two), I highly recommend it. I’ve gotten so I hate to fly anywhere, between the long lines, high prices, and everything going on in the world, and I love to drive. So, this was the right way to go, and I’d do it again. But with that stated … hopefully not any time soon!


We love Florida, have made some amazing friends in the people across the street, love taking the 2.5-mile drive to Manasota Beach to watch the spectacular sunsets over the gulf, and we never get tired of wearing shorts, t-shirts and sandals every day. I haven’t had long pants on since that snowy afternoon we left Bend. And I’d like to keep it that way.


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