Anyone to the east of San Francisco could have told us lunkheads that car camping on a cross-country road trip is difficult in late fall and winter. It’s not because it’s too cold inside the warm bed of the toasty minivan. It’s because the outside is too cold. And too dark.
We haven’t been winter camping even in California ever since Kenny began to play sports. Weekends were out. Accustomed to the relatively warm nights and long days of summer camping in California, we forgot that the winter sun declares curfew at about 5 p.m. (At left, the blogger with mandolin.)
Even if we could find a campground that wasn’t shuttered for the season, we faced up to 14 hours of darkness. After mid-October, it was too cold and too dark to fix dinner at the picnic table. We would make sandwiches in the heated car. We would crawl into bed in the van as early as 7 p.m., read with a night light, fall asleep by 8 p.m. – and wake up at 3 a.m. Unable to go back to sleep, we would try to read until dawn.
When rain thrummed on the tin roof of the Toyota, the predawn trip to the restroom made us long for home and the bathroom down the hall. At first light we would shiver while making coffee and fixing breakfast – or we would just break camp and head for the nearest coffee shop. (At right, Margo rigged an awning for our breakfast at Fort Stevens.) If we weren't staying with family and friends, we headed for campgrounds or rest-stop parking lots until November. We would pull into one of the franchised service centers that pop up every 20 miles or so on the toll roads in the East.
A 24-hour restaurant, usually a McDonald’s, would beckon with restrooms, coffee and Wi-Fi. McDonald’s planners specialize in inoffensive architecture, the bland leading the bland. No doubt they want to induce us to order inoffensive food. We would skip the food and buy coffee at the McCafe (not bad). We could plug in our laptop at one of the tables or just read a book for as long as we wanted. But it’s not what we had in mind. We wanted to see, hear and smell the quirkishness of America.
In November and December, we rented rooms in motels (see the list below) if we weren't enjoying the hospitality of friends or relations. Budget motels aren't all that expensive, but on a long trip the credit cards became a bit worn from overuse. Fees for campgrounds ranged from $5 (with a federal Golden Age Passport) to $15. We paid more than $30 for our first (and only) overnight amid the giant mobile homes in an RV park (at left) near Portland. Motels charged anywhere from $40 to $75. We spent one comfortable night in a luxurious B&B in Victoria, B.C., which cost us $150, but it was worth every penny because of Shelagh's hospitality and her bountiful English breakfast.
Our Visitations with Friends and Family:
The asterisks mark names of our hospitable hosts.
*Hans and Sherry Freistadt, Oroville, Calif.
*Dorothy Kantor, Medford, Ore.
*Duane and Marilyn Aasland, Bend, Ore.
Barbara and Hector Leslie, McKenzie Bridge, Ore.
Barry Locke, Portland
*Richard Schwab, Vancouver, Wash.
Jamie and Joe Brand, Hoquiam, Wash.
*Mark Ludlow, Olympia, Wash.
*Emily and Mark Lennon, Missoula, Mont.
*Perry and Maria Francis, Polson, Mont.
*Conrad and Joy Ludlow, Salt Lake City
Jenna and Elliot Ludlow, Salt Lake City
Lauren Ludlow, Salt Lake City
*Rebekka Struik, Boulder, Colo.
Linda Slobodin and Kevin, Arvada, Colo.
Jean and Al Slobodin, Westminster, Colo.
Harold Davis, Brownville, Neb.
Marsha Redman, Polk, Neb.
Amahia Mallea, Des Moines, Iowa
*Bob and Jeannine Schaub, Boone, Iowa
*Karen Mallea, Trail, Minn.
Judy Canter, Appleton, Wis.
*Art Lane, Saugatuck, Mich.
Kenny Ludlow, Anabel Hirano, Will Rubenstein, Oberlin, Ohio
*Clyde and Maryann Hohn, Oberlin, Ohio
*Dale and Ann Tussing, Syracuse, N.Y.
Anne Macchi, Arlington, Mass.
Rick Macchi, Belmont, Mass.
Zoe Marmer and Maya Sussman, Tufts University, Boston, Mass.
*Kathy Podmaniczky, Pleasant Valley, N.Y.
Bill Hutchinson and Lisa Amand, Brooklyn, N.Y.
*Dan North and Tara Levy, Jersey City, N.J.
Marlene Bagley, Jersey City, N.J.
Mireya (Mia) Navarro and James Sterngold, New York City
*Tibby Speer and Alex Neill, Washington, D.C.
Bud Liebes, Bethesda, Md.
*Sheila Downey and Jack Desrocher, Rogers, Ark.
*Curt Feldman and Megumi Ishiyama, Algiers (near New Orleans)
Marion Freistadt and son Shafir Wittenberg, New Orleans, La.
Jim Wittenberg, Metairie, La.
*Kathy Macchi and Faye Rozmaryn, Austin, Texas
*Ingrid Wiegand and George Dolis, Austin, Texas
*Norma and Jerry Bowkett, Sun City, Ariz.
Thielsen View Campground on Diamond Lake, Umpqua National Forest, near Crater Lake, Oregon. (Most memorable: Morning mist shrouding the lake.)
McKenzie Bridge National Forest, Willamette National Forest, State Route 126, McKenzie Bridge, Ore. (A beautiful camp at the river’s edge.)
Fort Stevens State Park, Astoria, Ore. (Showers, big trees, nearly 600 sites on a former Army base. Raccoons.)
Willaby Camp, Olympic National Forest, near Quinault, Wash. (Rainy, of course.)
Dosewallips State Park, near Bremerton, Wash. (A big campground, lots of room, nearly empty. Frost.)
Fishhook Camp, Army Corps of Engineers, Lake Sacajawea, near Pasco, Wash. (Full, despite heavy rain. Only one slot.)
May Creek Campground, Beaverhead National Forest, near Big Hole National Battlefield, Wisdom, Mont. (Cold, traces of snow.)
Craters of the Moon National Monument, near Arco, Idaho. (No trees. Cold.)
Dinosaur National Monument, near Jensen, Utah. (At right, Margo packs the Guppy at Dinosaur campground.)
Stillwater Campground, Arapaho National Forest, at Lake Granby, west of Estes Park, Colo. (No trees, just stumps. Pine beetles?)
Harlan County Lake, near Alma, Neb. (Beautiful sunset.)
Pawnee Lake Campground, Army Corps of Engineers/State Recreation Area, near Lincoln, Neb. (Gunfire at sunset. Duck hunters?)
Brownville Recreation Area, Brownville, Neb., on the mighty Missouri River. (No facilities. One other camper.)
Our (ugh) Parking lots:
-- At a closed truck stop near Lena, Mich. (at right.)
-- At Service Centers with all-night fast-food stores on toll roads in New York State and Massachusetts.
Namaste, travelers: Learn a few phrases of Gujarati. Astonishingly, 37 percent of America’s lodgings are owned and managed by networking Indian-Americans originally from Gujarati or its neighboring states in India. For budget motels near the highway, the percentage might be double. The phenomenon began in the 1940s, says a New York Times writer from India, when Kanjibhai Desai bought the Goldfield Hotel in San Francisco. As every traveler has noticed, the most common surname of the innkeepers, in a serendipitous rhyming with “motel,” is Patel. If you say “shub sham” instead of “good afternoon,” will you see a discount in the Total Patel Motel bill?
We stayed in 20 motels, and only six appeared to be in local ownership. We found only one that was an original. In Newfane, N.Y., the Lake Ontario Motel is about 10 long miles from Lake Ontario, but misleading motel names go with the territory. So to speak. The outside of the motel looks like a barn, but the rooms on the inside open into a central lobby/game room. We found our room on an upstairs gallery around the open lobby. It was ingenious, but the room was so small that the refrigerator and microwave stood just outside the door. It wasn’t cheap ($65) by winter rate standards. Complimentary breakfast? No. Go to the café across the road. About the other five non-chain motels, the best that could be said was that they were relatively cheap ($40 to $58).
We avoided upscale lodgings with the same fervor that kept seedy motor courts and hot-sheet motels off our shopping lists. As true-blue enemies of franchise chains and ardent supporters of local businesses, we made an uncomfortable discovery. When you’re on the road, just looking for a room with clean sheets, a good mattress, a shower and Wi-Fi, what you don’t need is architectural stimulation, stained furniture and noisy celebrants down the hall. We took a pass on the Plunk and Bunk (at right) and had already booked a room at the AmericInn before we noticed the Gopher Prairie Motel (at left), named for the fictional city of Sinclair Lewis's "Main Street."
It’s time to confess. Accomodations were much better in the budget chains: Econolodge, Days Inn, Comfort Inn, Best Western, Super 8 and our favorite, the slightly pricey ($77) but relatively luxurious AmericInns we found in Sauk Centre, Minn., and Thorp, Wis.
We lucked out. We scanned Craigslist for a month, looking for a camper van that would carry us around the country but wouldn’t cost a lot. If the transmission or the engine went out, we wanted to be able to walk away. After looking at VW Westfalias and various camper vans (Dodge, Ford, etc.), we settled on a 1996 Toyota Previa with a rebuilt cylinder head, 137,000 miles, good gas mileage (4 cylinders with overdrive and supercharger), new tires and everything else in good shape. The price: $3,900.
Margo removed the middle chairs and the rear seats. She built a bed on a platform with compartments for luggage, camping gear, etc. We carried a folding table, two folding chairs and kitchen stuff. A foam mattress was fitted for the bed, and Margo’s sewing machine produced a duvet and curtains. She tried to improvise an awning, but it’s a work in regress. We added wire baskets for clothing and storage, a rug and seat covers. We also bought a porta-potty and a frame for our laptop (we never used either one).
Altogether, Previa prep cost us about $710 – and about a week of Margo's labor.
Note to other Californians: To drive in other states is to get used to the alarming sound of a rumble strip. It emanates a racheting racket of grinding noises. It rattles the car with scary vibrations, as if you have run over a very large rock – a flash in the pan, perhaps. Rumble strips, from 4 to 8 inches wide, are corrugated belts grooved into the pavement on the shoulder, or the stripe down the middle, or athwart the road at a railroad crossing or intersection – or all of them.
In Astoria, Ore., the sliding mechanism broke on the side door. It cost us $326 and took four days for delivery of the broken gizmo. In Golden, Colo., we needed a new battery ($100). Oil changes and other maintenance brought the upkeep budget to $767.
We decided to keep the Previa as Margo’s work car.
We had a flat tire. But it wasn’t ours. At about 75 mph on I-10 in the sagebrush flatland of west Texas, we saw a tire come off the car ahead. It looked like a wheel, coming right at us. I had a split second, not even time to duck, warn Margo or contemplate might happen to the windshield (and us). We heard a loud thud. I hit the brake.
It wasn’t a wheel. It was a shredded tire. It had sloughed off the wheel like the hide of a rattlesnake in molting season. Squished by the bumper, it thumped and passed below the minivan. The only damage was to the Buena Vista PTA Alumni license plate frame. We lent our jack to the driver of the sedan. He replaced the wheel, and we continued onward. We were lucky, and we knew it.
We checked our mileage only once. It was good but not great, about 23 miles to the gallon. Highway speed 55 to 80 mph. Freeway/toll road (approximate): 75-80 mph. The statements for our debit card show that we spent $1,600 for gas at 42 filling stations, averaging about $38 per fill up. We put about 13,000 miles on the odometer. The cost of gas per mile: 8 cents. The price per gallon varied from $2.40 to $3.20.
Rumble strips warn inattentive or drowsy drivers. They help drivers stay on the road during bad weather. They also generate acronyms, as in: DOTs report a high B/C for CSRS (SNAP) to reduce ROR (DOR). Translation: State Departments of Transportation report a high benefit/cost ration for Continuous Shoulder Rumble Strips (also called Sonic Nap Alert Problem) to reduce Run-Off-Road (aka Drift-Off-Road) accidents.
It’s a lot easier to talk about Botts Dots, the device preferred in California and invented by a CalTrans research engineer, Elbert Dysart Botts, Ph.D. He died in 1962, never knowing that his successors would glue more than 25 million 4-inch “raised pavement markers” to California highways.
Botts Dots are unsuitable wherever winter roads need to be scraped with snowplows. That’s why rumble strips are preferred in most other states. Safety engineers were convinced in the 1990s of their benefits. They quote many studies, including a New York state report that showed ROR crashes dropped an astonishing 88 percent on the New York Thruway – from 588 ROR crashes in 1993 to 74 in 1997; from 17 fatalities in 1991 to 1 fatality in 1997.
What’s not to like about rumble strips? Ask the bicylists.
When contemplating this adventure, we never thought it would lead us to the best series of dinners imaginable. And I’m not referring to the myocardial infraction pastrami at New York's 2nd Avenue Deli or any of the fine restaurants we visited from Poughkeepsie to Jersey City to Fayetteville. Instead, the great chefs of our journey were our hosts. They welcomed us with hugs, hospitality and memorable dinners. If we named them, we would exhaust our stock of superlatives and, more to the point, subject them to pleading mobs of passionate gourmets outside their kitchen windows. (At right, Alex Neill and Tibby Speer with Margo in their home in Georgetown, Washington, D.C.)
On the road, we kept it simple. Dry cereal, milk and coffee for breakfast; sandwiches, milk and grapes for lunch. Until it turned dark at 5 p.m., we would get out the propane stove and fix dinner on the picnic table, usually pasta, salad, bread and a beverage. (I lost 12 pounds.)
Later, when we looked for motels, Margo would inspect the coupon books and linger over the word “breakfast.” To stay competitive these days, many motels have moved a step upward from the “continental breakfast” of rolls and coffee. At the AmericInn’s comfortable lobby, with leather chairs and a fireplace that’s almost real, a self-serve breakfast includes coffee, orange juice, a do-it-yourself waffle outfit, bagels, sweet rolls, toast, hard-boiled eggs, yogurt cups, three kinds of dry cereal, packets of oatmeal and copies of USA Today. We saw similar waffle layouts at Days Inn and Comfort Inn.
Rare is the budget motel that doesn’t offer at least a doughnut or two along with coffee in the lobby, but at the shabby Oak Tree Inn we were told to walk to the adjacent truck stop for coffee. It must be a motel without a Patel (see above).
We take for granted the presence of at least one Chinese restaurant with take-out delivery in any town, anywhere, with enough people to support a high school (that seems to be the limbo stick). It wasn't always the case. I'm old enough to remember when the only Chinese restaurants in San Francisco were in Chinatown. Half a century later, with hundreds of Chinese restaurants all through Frisco, we weren't surprised when we saw ads for the Great Wall and New China in Bemidji, a city of about 14,000 in the remoteness of the northwest corner of Minnesota.
But another culinary transformation has engulfed the towns and rural villages that we saw from Oregon to Louisiana. In Bemidji, T Juan's is the best known of the city's three Mexican restaurants. We drove past Hamilton, Mont. (4,500 population), where Fiesta en Jalisco offers an alternative to Bamboo Garden. In Madisonville, Ky. (18,000), it's El Bracero and China Jade. In Pine Bluff, Ark. (52,000), where we spent the night, Bei Jing leads the list of eight Chinese restaurants; El Matador is one of the newcomers in a city with eight Mexican or Tex-Mex restaurants. And it seemed that everywhere we went, enchiladas and tostadas have joined General Tsao's chicken and mu shu pork in liberating the palates of middle America. But for immigration, they might still be dining on tuna casserole and Jello salad.
We stopped for take-out coffee in a doughnut shop in Pecos, an ugly little city in the sagebrush country of west Texas. We knew that Cambodian-Americans now dominate the nation's doughnut shops (2,000 or so in California alone). But in Pecos, nearly 80 percent of the 10,000 residents are Latino. Only one-half of 1 percent of residents are listed as Asian, and it's a long way from Ankgor Wat. Nonetheless, Margo smiled as she emerged with the coffee and said, "Cambodians!"
We thought immediately about how much we missed San Francisco and the Ankgor Borei restaurant on upper Mission Street (at Cortland Avenue) in what might be called Bernal Depths.
Let other Cambodian-Americans get rich with doughnuts. What we needed at that moment was clay pot shrimp, green curry and pan-fried fish fillet with garlic sauce. We ignored the billboard directing travelers to the museum for Judge Roy Bean. We headed west, imagining cashew chicken, Cambodian style.
As for dinner in restaurants on our trip, the low point came a few days earlier. It was Thanksgiving Day in northwestern Kentucky. We tried to buy lunch at the Dinky Diner. It was dinky enough, but closed. (At right, Margo measures it. Ten feet, exactly.) We went to the big city, Paducah. By the time we began to look for a good restaurant, the downtown district had shut down. Out on the highway, three miles later, we finally saw the lights on at Applebee’s Neighborhood Grill and Bar. The “neighborhood” is an unplanned highway mishmash of businesses and light industry, but we were lucky to avoid munching in Burger King on Thanksgiving hamburgers with all the trimmings.
At Applebee’s, I ordered “Margherita Chicken,” with bruschetta over chicken breast. How many other diners did the same in a worldwide chain of 1,997 Applebees? I had the distinct impression that the menu, décor, atmosphere, uniforms of the waitresses and even the recipes come from a computer somewhere in Kansas City. But I need to get rid of my snobbishness. Maybe big is, in fact, better. The Margherita Chicken was pretty good, a compliment to the late Queen Consort from Savoy. And who are we to question the corporate investors who bought the chain from other investors who bought it from other investors who bought it from a husband and wife in Atlanta? Pass the garlic.
OUR EXPENSE ACCOUNT
COMPUTER REPAIRS: $200
TRANSPORTATION : $7,302
GRAND TOTAL: $11,485
Subtract Minivan: $4,810
ADJUSTED TOTAL $6,675
1. Miscellaneous: Admission to museums and
exhibits, groceries,coffee to go, books and
newspapers, gifts,postcards, postage,
sandwiches (approximate): $1,800
Repairs, oil changes, and maintenance: $767
Train, Taxi, Metro, PATH, NYC subways: $125
On the Road total $2,492
Purchase of the Toyota Previa: $3,900
Registration, etc.: $200
Prep and camper conversion: $710
MINIVAN TOTAL $4,810
TRANSPORTATION TOTAL: $7,302
3. Motels and Hotels (Off-Season)
* Franchised or owned by chains
*AmericInn: Sauk Centre, Minn. ($76)
Sunset Motel, Ignace, Mich. ($45)
*Econolodge, Niagara Falls, N.Y. ($61)
Lake Ontario Motel, Newfane, N.Y. ($65)
*Quality Inn, Lexington, MA ($60)
*AmericInn, Thorp, Wis. ($77)
*Econo Lodge, Bellmawr, N.J. ($55)
*Comfort Inn, Dover, Delaware ($67)
*Days Inn, White Pine, Tenn. ($44)
*Knights Inn, Verona, VA. ($49)
*Econolodge, Paducah, Ky. ($45)
*Comfort Inn, Nashville, Tenn. ($72)
Cottonwood Inn, Pocahontas, Ark. ($56)
Redwood Inn, White Hall, Ark. ($55)
*Travel Inn (2 days), Metairie, La. ($101)
*Super 8, Beaumont, Texas ($55)
Oak Tree Inn, Pecos, Texas ($58)
*Best Western, Deming, N.M. ($66)
*Days Inn, Lake Havasu, Ariz. ($54)
Homeland Inn, Buttonwillow, CA ($40)
Cozy Cottage Bed and
Breakfast, Victoria, B.C. ($150)
TOTAL MOTEL EXPENSES: $1,337