Last year, I wrote about driving across the country. I had to deliver my daughter’s car back to her at school for use during her summer internship. Well, after almost a year, it was time to make the reverse trip back to Arizona.
The options to make the multi-day trip were starting to dwindle as she nears graduation. Thankfully, we had two trips planned back to State College. The first was for THON in mid-February and the second for graduation in early May – each one with pluses and minuses. If we drove back after THON 2018, it would be February and the weather would be a crap shoot – but if we waited until graduation, it would impact our other travel plans in May. Sure, we could fly back at a different time, but that would be more costly.
We opted for February and made our flights one-way into State College. The plan was set with us arriving on Thursday, then celebrating our daughter’s birthday on Friday – similar to last year. The big change, however, was this year, she would be “dancing” for 46 hours in Penn State’s annual mega-fundraising event, THON. The dancers stand on Friday at 6pm and don’t take a seat until Sunday at 4pm. You can read more about this year’s event in my THON 2019 post.
We did our best to stand with the 700+ dancers and made it over 33 hours with about 7 hours sleep for the weekend. But our time to sit came starting Monday afternoon.
After we left our older daughter to recuperate and we put our younger daughter on her flight, we started on our cross-country trek just before 2pm on Monday.
With a wintry mix approaching from the west, we opted for the southern route and we hit the road! The plan was to head south through Maryland, Virginia, Tennessee, and Alabama. Then turn west through Louisiana, Texas, New Mexico, entering Arizona on the southern I-10 route. This route would take us through the college towns of Blacksburg (Va Tech), Harrisonburg (James Madison), Knoxville (UT), Tuscaloosa (Alabama), Hattiesburg (Southern Miss), and Baton Rouge (LSU), before entering Texas!
Interstate 99 in central PA winds through some gorgeous rolling mountains as we made our way south toward the Maryland border. The weather was a little dicey as we tried to beat the storm coming in from the west.
Little did we know, we’d only be in Maryland for a short time before crossing into our third state on the day, West Virginia. The town of Berkley Springs looked like small-town Americana with American flags lining the main street through town.
After driving on a two-lane road for quite a while, and entering into our fourth state, Virginia, we finally hit the highway – Interstate 81 along the Appalachians. We were a bit disappointed that this trip would be a quick one since this area along the foothills looks to be rich in sightseeing – including the scenic Blue Ridge Parkway and plenty of Civil War battlefields.
With the late start, combined with limited sleep from the weekend, we made it a short day and stayed just outside of Roanoke in Salem. After a surprisingly good dinner at Mac & Bob’s in Salem, it was an early night.
Day 1: Five hours of straight driving time with no stops and 345 miles covered.
The next morning, a check of the weather told us there was a major rain storm heading north from the Gulf of Mexico. Heavy rains in Louisiana and Alabama were predicted to turn to sleet, freezing rain and snow as it approached Virginia and the northeast. Based on that, we altered our route. We grabbed a quick breakfast at a great cafe, Our Daily Bread, and were on our way by 9am.
It was hard to believe that nasty weather was on the way, but this was definitely the calm before the storm…
A little further south on 81 and we had another reminder that we were in the south. An exit for the Lee Highway sadly had me thinking, “how long before this road gets renamed”?
Before long, we were in Tennessee – our fifth state! The town of Bristol sits at the border in both Virginia and Tennessee and is home to the Bristol Motor Speedway.
Next up was Knoxville. With the campus of the University of Tennessee just off the interstate, we decided to see if we’d be able to meet up with one of our daughter’s good friends, who happens to play golf for the Lady Vols. Her schedule wouldn’t permit, but she gave us a great restaurant recommendation for lunch on the campus.
The Copper Cellar is one of Knoxville’s better restaurants and was perfect for what we wanted. Even though our server was from Philadelphia originally, she definitely adopted the trademark southern hospitality.
After checking the weather radar again, we decided to take a detour. Instead of continuing south through Chattanooga and into Alabama – directly towards the storm, we decided to turn west on I-40 and headed toward Nashville – staying north of the storm for as long as possible.
Lebanon TN is just east of Nashville. As we stopped for gas, we checked the radar and saw the storms moving in. We considered our options of either staying in Nashville (expensive hotels with nightlife) or on the outskirts (much cheaper hotels, nothing to do). As we were pondering our decision, a huge flash appeared that solidified our decision. The rain started and we stopped for the day even though it was only 3pm local time.
Day 2: 7 hours on the road covering 413 miles
Fun fact: Tennessee is split into two time zones, so we picked up an hour somewhere between Knoxville and Lebanon.
The next morning, the rain was still coming down We stopped in town for a coffee and navigated around many flooded streets until we hit the highway at 8am.
It wasn’t bad until the tail end of it hit us an hour outside of Memphis.
Thankfully, the storm had passed as we entered our next stop – Memphis!
We stopped to grab a quick bite to eat before making our way towards Dallas. Of course, when in Memphis, you have to do three things: BBQ, Blues, and Graceland.
A quick check of Yelp and we made our way to Central BBQ, one of the top-rated BBQ joints in the area and a stone’s throw away from the Liberty Bowl Stadium. This place reminded me so much of our local Honey Bears BBQ.
While checking the reviews online, Pork Nachos seemed to be mentioned a lot so we just had to have an order with our BBQ Pork and Chicken sandwiches. Oh, and I was able to wash it down with a Nashville brew, Gerst Amber.
I must say, the Pork Nachos were a pretty good twist and they epitomized the Jimmy Buffet song, Cinco de Mayo in Memphis.
Stop two in Memphis was over to Graceland. While we didn’t want to spend the time touring the place, we just had to stop by for a quick photo of Elvis’ homeland.
And besides, thanks to Youtube, we’re able to catch a glimpse inside anyway. Next time, we’ll make sure to spend a couple of hours here.
With two relatively short days of driving already, we decided to skip the famous Beale St and the Blues scene – again, just giving us another reason for a return trip.
Just across the Mississippi, we entered Arkansas, state number six.
We passed through the capital city of Little Rock before coming upon Hope – home of President Bill Clinton and Mike Huckabee and his daughter Sarah.
Pop quiz: Besides politicians, what is Arkansas’s top export?
Believe it or not, Arkansas is the nation’s top producer of rice – accounting for nearly 45% of all rice production in the US. Another interesting attraction in Arkansas is the Crater of Diamonds State Park where just last year, a woman found a whopping 2.63 carat diamond!
As the day was winding down, we wanted to make sure we got to the western side of Dallas for the night so we wouldn’t have to battle morning rush hour traffic heading into Dallas the next day. We entered Texas, state number seven, at 4:45pm and would have another three hours to go to make it.
Here’s where the worst part of the trip comes in. We made it to the Dallas metro area after evening rush hour, at around 7pm, but of course, there was an accident on our route. Thankfully, Waze rerouted us through and around the city.
While I consider myself a fairly competent and aggressive driver, this city owned me. Maybe it was the 10 hours I had already driven that day, or because of the amount of construction on their roads, or driving at night. Maybe it was the number of HOV/tolls roads that I didn’t know if I could drive on. Or maybe it was the number of left-hand exit ramps? Or perhaps it was the fact that I had no idea where I was going. Or the horrendous traffic all moving at a fairly quick pace. Combined, it made for a horrible driving experience for the next hour as we zigzagged around the city at 80mph just to avoid being run over.
In the end, it was well worth the commitment to get to Fort Worth. I couldn’t imagine the morning rush hour.
One downside of staying so far out of town was the lack of dining options. Fortunately, we found a highly-rated pizza place no far from us so we decided to add another stop to our #pizzatour.
While pizza isn’t the first thing that comes to mind when in Texas, Olivella’s was voted “Best of Dallas” for a couple of years in a row. They also offered Neapolitan-style and Roman-style pies. We opted for the Regina Margherita that was quite tasty. The parrano cheese added a nice flavor to the standard Margherita but still didn’t compare to some of our local favorites like La Piazza PHX, Cibo and Il Bosco.
I washed it down with a local Bombshell Blonde. Beer that is….
Day 3: Almost 12 hours on the road covering 792 miles!
The next day, we were in a quandary. We were about 15 hours of driving from home with nothing in between us except El Paso. The decision was either stay another night in El Paso or press on and try to get home. One thing we definitely didn’t want to do was to stay in or around Tucson – thinking, if we can make it there, we can make it home. An early wake-up call would help us if we decided to press on.
We were on the road before 7:30 and not long after, we saw a sign for Scranton, Texas! This tiny town was settled in 1875 and today has about 40 residents. I’d love to dig into the origin of the name.
The drive across Texas goes on forever. You can see by the mile marker, we were 325 miles from the New Mexico border – this after driving for several hours between yesterday and today.
As we approached Midland, it was getting to be lunch-time. Again, Yelp didn’t disappoint. When you’re in Texas, you have to have Brisket, right? Sure enough, a place called KD’s BBQ in Midland was just off the exit.
Pulling in, we knew we were in for a treat. The parking lot was full of pickup trucks and nothing but pickup trucks. You knew it was a favorite of all of the local oil field workers. Our little BMW was clearly out of place here.
This is one of those places that you’d probably never just “pop in” if you didn’t know about it. For the uninitiated, it was a bit intimidating. As we walked in, someone easily picked us out as newbies and guided us up the steps, where you’re greeted by a surly guy with thongs as he hovers over bins of meat. “For here or to go”? He tells us to grab a tray and paper, then “what do you want”? Brisket, chicken and jalapeno sausage.
Boom. Slaps it on the plate and you’re on your way to the next station where they weigh your tray because you pay by the pound. $18.55 for our selection.
Next stop, grab any sides and drinks, then pay at the register before you help yourself to the three different sauces, bread, and beans on the chuckwagon.
We got there just ahead of the rush and when we left, the place was packed with Carhartt-wearing, grease-covered guys. Another great find with melt-in-your-mouth brisket.
Interstate 10 skirts the Texas/Mexico border. So close in fact, that the cell coverage crosses over as we get a welcome to Mexico message. We wanted to get a picture of the wall before Beto tears it down, but it was too far off in the distance and we didn’t want to get too close and risk getting deported.
By 3pm, we were in El Paso and feeling pretty good. The weather was clear and we figured we’d be able to make it home by 9pm if we pushed it, but with more storms in Arizona, we were still undecided. A short 15 minutes later and we entered New Mexico. State number eight on the trip.
One thing we noticed was that this route was much different than the Mother Road, Route 66 and I-40. Coming this way, there weren’t nearly as many unique sites like Uranus Fudge Factory or the largest rocking chair. Instead, we captured this guy – a recycled roadrunner sculpture along I-10 in Las Cruces.
Passing through New Mexico, we saw snow covered mountains and wondered if we were in for more for the clouds moving in from the south. The winds were pretty wicked – pushing tumbleweed across the road for miles. It’s no fun slamming into these bundles of prickly dead plants at 90mph.
With the sun starting to set, we were still a few hours away from Phoenix, with not much other than Tuscon in between.
There was no stopping us now. We pressed on, refueled outside of Tucson and hunkered down for the rain that had just started. A storm that would dump snow in areas of Scottsdale and with heavy downpours as we made our way up I-10.
Regardless, we pulled into our driveway at 9:15pm. Home!
Day 4: – A whopping 15 hours covering 1028 miles on the day!
Looking back at our decision to take the southern route, I think we were spot on. Not only were there storms coming in on Day 1, but additional storms that slammed Oklahoma later in the week and Northern New Mexico and Arizona mid-week. Who knows how long we would have been delayed.
Overall, we logged 2,578 miles with 39 hours in the seats. We joked about how we balanced out our weekend of standing with a week of sitting.
Once again, an incredible trip across this beautiful country with sites, sounds and smells along the way that reminds us of what an awesome and diverse country we live in.
Stop wondering. Start wandering!