TJE 63: Dear Friend, it’s been 3 years! (USA Road Trip 2022)

Dear Friend,

Could this be real? I am riding a plane again! March 1, 2022 – the first time I’m traveling in 26 months! I’m in the big USA – ah, how I missed your vibe.

We were leaving the Philippines busy. And so, work immediately resumed as soon as we arrived. But there is fun in just a change of environment.

For 1 month, we stayed put in the home base: Chandler, Arizona. Though not without enjoying our favorite coffee shop in the whole world: Peixoto! We are so happy to see they’re still thriving. How we missed their coffee. To add, Peixoto’s already great coffee got even better. I was particularly mind-blown by their Brazil Gesha coffee. Like, wow! And later on, I got a chance to talk to the owner of Peixoto, who shared that it is the first year their arabica gesha variety shrubs yielded enough harvest. It took 6 years for this moment to come. And I’m glad to be enjoying the fruits of their labor. It’s amazing really, the amount of work that comes to produce a most excellent cup of coffee.

3 Years?!

It’s been three years! I refer to the last time I had a US road trip – you know, one of epic scale. So, I want to tell you about that, before the memory escapes me.

Courtesy: Google Maps (Click to open map)

This was a 2-week road trip to the east side. Destination: Cambridge or Boston, Massachusetts. As a backgrounder, my cousin took the opportunity of the online set up and discounted tuition at Harvard University starting 2020, in the pandemic. So for this US trip, one of the important agenda was to get her student ID! Haha!

On to the road trip. Just a few more characters in this story: my niece (cousin’s daughter), Max the cousin-in-law and his brother Seph, who’s visiting from Canada. 

We started on a Monday, April 4, early of course, to avoid the rush hour traffic. The first quick stop we made was at Payson, AZ – for our morning coffee (and a tee bit of breakfast). We noticed how the Starbucks looked new and redesigned. With that observation, this trip also turned out to be a Starbucks American tour. They have redesigned a lot of stores that they’re worth a look, many worth photographing.

There was a strict deadline for the trip, since we were joined by a guest who had 2 weeks off from work. So we ought to follow the fastest route to Cambridge, and just stop by attractions along the way.

Setting the tone

Our first random stop was at a seemingly abandoned spot along AZ-77 N. There were two old-style gasoline pumps beside a petrified wood store. The store doesn’t look abandoned, just unmanned and locked because there were still petrified wood surrounding it, and its paint is still vibrant. True enough, the store owner drove by and asked us if we wanted to buy rocks. We replied, “no, we’re just taking pictures.” He just let us be. This stop set the tone for my photography in this trip; eyeing spots that are either old but preserved, or abandoned and weathered.

We went to Petrified Forest National Park shortly after, for a quick sightseeing. It’s one of those spots that make the USA unique. There are many wonderful formations here that are a result of millions of years of geologic activity. And we are in that window of time to enjoy those places. 

Hear me out: rock log stools

Shortly after, we entered New Mexico, and the first shift in time zone occurred (Arizona doesn’t observe DST, that’s why). We had lunch in Gallup, New Mexico, not far away from the state line. This is where we saw the most beautiful Starbucks in the trip. It has a nice interior, with great choice of chairs, and a beautiful painting of a native American woman. I was busy looking after some remaining work, that I didn’t think of taking a photo of that painting. 

(So, I borrowed this one from my cousin:)

Courtesy: @lifeofjennbrightz

The first rest stop was in the city of Albuquerque. It was the 1st option I listed, though it’s preferable for us to move further, considering the initial target of reaching Cambridge by Thursday evening. Because we stopped in Albuquerque, it became obvious that we won’t reach the initial target schedule. We’d have to hurry up on the way home. 

Rough Route 66 Finds

On to the next day of driving. We were leaving Albuquerque on a windy day, with sandstorms behind us or almost on our path. It’s noticeably colder too, which we liked. Chandler, AZ was already getting hot days in late March. 

Leaving the sandstorm behind

This is one of the most interesting days of the trip. Interstate 40 very much aligns with Route 66 in this part of New Mexico. Seeing the signs that invite drivers to exit, to pass through Route 66, we were tempted. Missing a couple of those exits, I looked at the map. As we were nearer the Texas state line, I thought, we could pass by Route 66 to cross it. So I told the team’s driver at the time to take the next exit.

Good omen

That portion of Route 66 turned out to be a dirt road! Oops. But we drove on. Shortly after, things got interesting. Hey look, a llama! We stopped to take its photo. It seemed threatened so we carefully approached the fence. The llama stayed put, even posing to show its facial marks. It’s like an omen of the interesting things to come. Abandoned, weathered buildings alternate with farmland. And of course, the former attracted us. Irony… that’s what this abandoned site tells, thanks to the vandal.

Irony

Very near Texas, we finally met paved road. More photos were taken as we saw another abandoned building. It’s also nice to pose on the empty road.

Slowly approaching the border, we saw no state sign. “We are at the state line already,” I said out loud. Then we noticed a Route 66 painting on the road so we still stopped. And the painting includes Texas, great, that’s our state sign then.

Probably the most unique state line pose I have so far

There’s also an old diner and gasoline station nearby, matched with a couple of classic cars. It’s no longer abandoned, as made evident by the “No Trespassing” and “Private Property” signs. We wonder what the owner plans to do with it.

Okay, that was a fun detour along the old route 66! We rejoined the I-40 and started driving through the north tip of Texas. A big city in that part is Amarillo, this is our pinned stop for late lunch/early dinner. Before lunch though, we dropped by the Cadillac Ranch for a quick photo op. Searching at the map while already in Amarillo, we picked Hoffbrau Steak & Grill House. And boy did this restaurant represent Texas well! I had the best steak of the trip there.

Cadillac Ranch

We had to drive past this “narrow” head of Texas to make significant progress in the trip. But in the end, we spent the night at Shamrock, still in Texas. Our route 66 detour in New Mexico really took time. On the plus side, we capped the day with another Route 66 appreciation, because Shamrock is a historical town along it. The last time we were here was 2017. And it made us wonder about one place in particular: Big Vern’s Steakhouse. It looked closed. Is it? If yes, whatever happened to the warm elderly people managing it then?

I wonder…

More pleasant surprises

at Elk City, Oklahoma

The next day, we really needed to make progress, so we tried. Crossing Oklahoma, we just drove in the morning. But not without a Starbucks appreciation for the day: this beautiful mermaid pair painting inside a branch in Elk City, Oklahoma. Now, we just drove and drove before our lunch place. 

I picked an attraction in Tulsa, but pinned the lunch place at a town before the city, thinking we should go to a less busy area. That area is Sand Springs, which turned out to be a good stop over. First off, the food at Napoli’s is fresh and good. And then, the quaint town invited us to walk and look around. We found an antique shop were my party found a few items to get, and close to it is a good enough coffee shop for our afternoon kick. Then, we stopped by Tulsa for the giant Golden Driller. I relate to this statue as a former member of the Oil and Gas Industry. The message on the plate struck a chord to be honest: 

The Golden Driller

Symbol of

The International Petroleum Exposition

Dedicated to the men of the petroleum industry who by their vision and daring have created from God’s abundance a better life for mankind

Cheers to my friends in the oil and gas industry!

Moving on, we had to make the hotel stop deep in Missouri to improve our pace. However, my cousin got intrigued with a ghost town named Picher, and asked me if it’s along the way. I saw that it wouldn’t be too far off the I-44, so we made the turn. This stop added consistency to the prevailing theme of my photos so far. Picher used to be a mining town for about 3 decades, where Lead and Zinc were extracted. Interesting fact: more than 50% of the lead and zinc metal consumed in World War I came from the Picher Field! With its hazardous wastes, it remains to be the number 1 Superfund Site of the US Environmental Protection Agency. Residents were all bought out by 2009 and in the same year, its incorporated status was officially cancelled. We only saw a few abandoned buildings left. Some were already demolished.

As evidence of Picher belonging to the tri-state mining district, we crossed Kansas state line first, then Missouri within 30 minutes. At least we reached Missouri. But we couldn’t go any further, so we looked for a place to stay in Springfield.

Happenstances

Next day, we really had to hurry up. We drove almost to the border of Missouri for our lunch. This was in the lively city of St. Louis. It’s also a stop for a quick photo op of the attraction: Gateway Arch. What we did not expect: St. Louis was especially alive that day, with a sea of people in red. “Is that for BBM?” My niece asked. There was a major league baseball game that day, with the St. Louis Cardinals! The place was festive. Apart from the many people in red hanging outside the Busch stadium, restaurants and bars were packed; there were even people drinking and barbecuing at the parking lot. Parking was hella expensive, a fixed rate of $40.00 on any public parking lot. But after backing out of one of those pricey spaces, we were lucky to chance upon a metered street parking in less than a minute! (Not without putting the parallel parking skill to the test!)

Wanting to avoid the crowd, we decided to just go to the Arch first, and maybe drive to a less busy place. While walking though, we spotted a restaurant that seemed to have more space inside and took note of it. Anyway, photo op first. One notable sight that we were lucky to catch then was a plane flying above the city in circles, dragging a flag of Ukraine. It makes for a good picture every time the plane passes through the giant  arch.

On our way back, we checked out the restaurant, Carmine’s Steak House, along Walnut St. and S 4th St. There’s still a lot of people, but there was enough space for us. I really preferred eating at St. Louis already, instead of looking for another place, because that will take even more time. So it was good that we didn’t have to wait long to be seated. And, the food at Carmine’s was great – one of the best we had during the whole trip. 

Honestly, we were still cautious about Covid, that’s why we try to avoid crowds. But we actually loved the vibe of the city then – how we missed that type of fun! However, it was still time to move on. And this part of the trip was funny. 

We forgot to do a fuel stop before going to St Louis. We typically gas up when the tank is 1/4 to 1/2 full, just to be safe. But when we were leaving, the team driver at the time alerted that the tank’s almost empty, and we have a few miles worth left – 9 if I remember correctly. We turned off the AC, but we hung a little bit, because instead of searching for a gasoline station immediately, we drove to the interstate first, LOL. Realizing this, I commanded to take the next exit immediately. Then we used the van’s GPS to search for a nearby gasoline station. The remaining miles were dropping. With 5 or so miles left, we were anxious to reach the gasoline station. We saw an old Shell station that’s non-operational and we joked about that. But the joke immediately backfired as the GPS led us to a different, but also non-operational gasoline station. Damn! That GPS sure needs updating. 3 Miles left. Phones out, for the more reliable Waze or Google Maps. Out of panic, we made a right turn to a station that wasn’t directed by the navigation. But we were wrong again, it was an ATM station, hahaha! Okay, calm down, we are near, we will make it. And finally, with 1 mile left according to the indicator, we reached the gasoline station. Whew!

On to the next drive. It would be faster if we just cross southern Illinois. My cousin however, felt like going to Chicago. We stop there every time we come close. And it’s always cool to take photos of Cloud Gate. Also, our guest has not been to that city yet. So we changed course and drove to Chicago! 

Large street arts viewed from the hotel window, Chicago

Incidentally, I have a friend who’s on vacation in the US, and was in Chicago for that week. So I contacted him immediately after making the decision to go there. Exciting!

On the way, we looked for a hotel in Chicago using Agoda, thinking rates in the city are expensive. Also to not just leave the vacancy to chance. This became our booking style since. On the first 3 days, we just picked a hotel on the map, and booked when we arrived.

Alright, Chicago, we meet again. After we checked in, I quickly got ready and met my friend at First Draft. We just talked about how fun it was to not have mask mandates, how we yearned for a change of environment just to reset, and the inescapable election stuff in the Philippines. I mean, we can easily meet back home, but I really embrace a happenstance like this. And one of my trip highlights is the 2 hours spent at this bar in Chicago. Why? First Draft had lots of great craft beer. I’d say it’s the best set I had – ever! I didn’t look at the menu at all. I just asked the waiter/bar tender recommendations based on my preferences. And he did really good (shout out to Sam!). The beers they have are good to begin with – so that makes a bar tender’s job easier. I had 4 glasses, and went back to the hotel a bit tipsy.

IPA FTW

Just when I thought the beer fun is over, my roomie, our guest for the trip, was preparing to go out for a walk when I arrived. I told him, if he wants to drink beer, I can still get another glass. And so I joined him outside, and led the way to First Draft! I ordered my favorite among the last set I had. Whew! I went back to the hotel tipsy.

Cloud Gate – a most artistic waiting shed

The next day, I was hung over, hahaha! We had a morning walk to Cloud Gate on a rainy day – had to buy an umbrella because of that. The trip was progressively getting colder. I had to wear gloves this time. That is annoying when taking photos in the rain. After a nod to Cloud Gate, it’s time for us to drive drive drive. Before that, we made a Starbucks stop, which happened to be at the beginning of Route 66. Another nice happenstance. Click!

Upstate meanderings

We entered Indiana without stopping at the state sign, just like before, since we crossed via bridge. When will we ever explore this state? Well, we decided to have lunch somewhere in it. We found a Thai restaurant run by a Laotian man. We talked to him a bit. He suggested going to a big Amish community in Indiana. We thought about it, but decided not to go, because of the additional detour.

We just passed by Ohio and pushed to just pass by the tiny strip of Pennsylvania along Lake Erie. We were pushing further this day. The next hotel accommodation pinned was at Buffalo, New York. Then we thought that since it’s already Friday night, it’s better to stay 2 nights in upstate New York before going to Cambridge. This was a cheaper option too. Arriving at Buffalo without a hotel booking yet, we thought, since we would visit Niagara Falls, we could just find an accommodation there for 2 nights. So we drove on for 30 more minutes – the next day would be chill anyway. We were able to have a relatively cheap stay at the Comfort in The Pointe, walking distance from Niagara Falls. 

I woke up early, to catch the event our company was busy with back in the Philippines. And after that, I slept like a baby. They had to wake me up to have late lunch!

Okay, time to check out the majestic Niagara Falls. It’s noticeable how few the visitors still were – good! Another good thing about this timing: going to the observation tower was free. At least we could see the falls at a slightly different angle. There were also many parts of the park under renovation. 

Max and Seph went out to do laundry earlier that day, and noticed the many old and abandoned spots. Upon sharing this, my cousin got intrigued. So we looked around town after Niagara Falls. Old, empty houses added to my photography theme. While doing this, we got to talk to a friendly resident. He shared that many houses and commercial spaces were bought by the company, Blue Cardinal Capital. But due to Covid, the developments were put on hold. And there is allegedly another issue, which I won’t speculate about anymore. 😀 But another takeaway from that conversation was: the real estate is cheap right now, and it could be a good time to buy. So to anyone interested, do inquire about property in Niagara Falls!

The inside is still beautiful, according to the friendly resident.

Thanks to the resident, we also learned about Di Camillo – the oldest bakery in Western New York. We stopped by for a few treats. I quite liked their gelato. The few breads we bought, well, not so much. 

We took a drive along Whirlpool Street as also recommended by the friendly resident. We just made a quick stop at the parking space we immediately saw: The Great Gorge Railway Trail near the Whirlpool Rapids Bridge. It’s not interesting at that time of the year – where river access/activities are closed. We saw this nice street art though.

By the evening, we walked to Niagara Falls again so we can photograph the night scene. Though it’s an artificial enhancement, the lights do make for stunning views of the falls at night.

I 💜 U Niagara Falls!

Alright, it’s time for us to move again. My party is into antiques, and there’s a big shop along the way in Syracuse. It’s very big and well-curated too. We noticed how popular it is, as cars park and go every few minutes, and it has a lot of parking space. It’s the Syracuse Antique Exchange, and they cater many contributors – no wonder. I went in briefly, and decided to just wait outside. My party found several items: old records, magazines, books, accessories and camera. We hoped to eat at the nearby mall before leaving the city, but couldn’t really find a good spot, so we just forego lunch and decided to drive away. 

Syracuse Antique Exchange (SAE)

That decision was fine, because we found a hidden gem in upstate New York. When we couldn’t ignore the empty stomachs anymore, I searched for a place to eat. Our style was to find Asian cuisine first, so in case we end up in a remote place where only American fast food is available, we won’t feel sated. And in the quiet village of Altamont in Albany county, we found a hidden gem: Akanomi, a Japanese restaurant. Their food is fresh and really good (the Takoyaki could be better though, haha).  

After that satisfying stop, we drove on for another 2.5 hours and finally got to our destination: Boston, Massachusetts! We booked 2 nights at the artsy Studio Allston. This hotel features many works of local artists. It’s nice, except for the stupid bathroom door. LOL.

Somebody change this hotel’s bathroom doors, please.

Mission Accomplished

My cousin finally accomplished her mission the next morning: getting a Harvard student ID! After that, the boys went out to do laundry, haha! While waiting, I walked in the neighborhood to take photos. 

Then, we headed out for lunch. We chose a Korean restaurant along Harvard Avenue. We walked up the road to another Korean kitchen that sells corn dogs. It has a funny light box I say. 

The face you make after cooking a kick-ass corndog.

After that, we headed to Harvard. Walking inside the campus made me smile. It brought back the feeling of being a student. And Harvard Square is fun. For a moment there, I felt inspired to study in school again. I could even blend in, attested by an encounter with a stranger who asked me for directions. 😉

My niece was particularly affected by the place. She was just in awe, and excited by the campus. It sparked a dream in the young lady; and now she wants to go to Harvard for college, haha! 

We went to the Harvard Book Store before leaving. I was just waiting outside, not wanting to wear a mask (which was required inside), but ended up buying 2 books displayed at the window. 

Do I look like a Harvard Square regular? 😀

The next morning, we stopped by Pavement Coffee House before leaving Boston. It’s the only specialty coffee shop we found in the trip. Their coffee is pretty good that I bought a pack of their own-roasted Ethiopia coffee beans. 

Okay, it’s time to go home. We considered going to Austin, Texas, to meet my cousin’s classmate in the last semester. I just put an address in Austin, and we’d just drive as far as we could, and look for a hotel whenever we felt tired. Initially, the route calculated included the same way along upstate New York, before heading south. But then, we made an emergency stop at a Starbucks, because my niece had to submit a project. Because of work and class, we actually did this type of stop a few times in the trip. The nearest Starbucks I found made us take a complicated exit with changes in highways. When my niece finished uploading her assignment, the navigation recalculated a different route. We would start moving southwest already, going down the state of New York. New York City, won’t be out of the way anymore. Hmm. 

We stopped by for lunch somewhere in Connecticut – great Thai food stop (maybe Thai Smile), btw! Then we decided to stop by NYC, so we pinned Times Square in the GPS. 

My cousin is working on a photography project, and she’s experiencing difficulty continuing it in Arizona. In Boston and Cambridge, she found more subjects for her project theme. And then we arrived to New York City. Having difficulty looking for parking, she had the urge to get going immediately to not waste the opportunity. I accompanied her to walk to Time Square already. We’d just meet the rest of the gang there, as soon as they’re able to park. My cousin’s subjects were just everywhere! Click, click, click! She just fired away! There were so many people in New York City. What Covid? Haha! But I love it. How I would love the Philippines to feel open and brave again. 

The last thing we did at Times Square while waiting for the rest of the party was watch a street performance. It was amusing, but had an anticlimactic arrangement. 

It was already night time when we left New York. This delayed us significantly, that we decided to no longer go to Austin, Texas. But we had no regrets. Now, where to sleep? We tried to go far, and booked a hotel in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. 

Birthday Bliss

Four days left. Driving on, we hoped to go even further, just having White Sands National Park pinned at the GPS. At sunset, we had to make a Starbucks stop somewhere in West Ohio, for another online class-related emergency. Resuming our drive at nighttime, we still wanted to go further, hopefully Illinois. However, it rained hard, so we drove a bit more slowly. Max suggested to find a stop already for safety. Soon, traffic built-up along I-70. We exited for gasoline. We saw in Waze and Google Maps that there’s a road accident. We decided to look for an accommodation nearby. I looked at the map as well, and suggested to the group to follow the US Highway 40 instead, parallel to I-70, to avoid the traffic. We only took I-70 again when we were near Indianapolis already, where we booked the emergency stop.

Three days left. It’s the eve of my birthday. We had lunch at Union 30, Hotel St. Louis, in Missouri. The city was quiet compared to the last week when we were there. But I’m still digging the vibe of it. It’s already my birthday in the Philippines, so this was already a celebratory lunch. The server, though not so warm at the onset, surprised me with a slice of chocolate cheesecake and a glass of beer. Thank you, Ma’am! 

Up to this point, I was not driving throughout the trip. That’s because I just let Max and Seph enjoy their bonding in this road trip. I wasn’t even volunteering, hahaha! But I wanted a birthday drive, so I requested to do so after lunch. And it was nicely timed because the weather was fine, and the spring foliage along I-44 in Missouri was just beautiful. What a nice feeling. 

After 1.5 hours, we stopped for coffee in Rolla. It’s yet another Starbucks (which we incidentally had an emergency stop the previous week). When I requested to have my coffee use blonde roast coffee, the barista said, “You’re gonna hate me, because our machine for that is broken…” Max playfully remarked, “…he’s gonna cry, because it’s his birthday today.” The barista greeted me and asked if I wanted any treat. I said no, because I’m still full from our lunch. She asked if I ever tried the Birthday Cake Pop. I haven’t, and so she picked one from the fridge and handed me. Great, another free treat!

We were able to go the distance this day, checking in at a hotel in Weatherford, Oklahoma. 

Second to the last day. It’s Good Friday, and we are definitely headed to New Mexico. We started early, and aimed for Roswell – yes, that Roswell, instead of Alamogordo. Part of the Catholic belief, we ought to not travel by 3PM onwards. So we passed by the familiar Texas route up to Amarillo. Then, we headed southwest. We passed by the so-called beef capital of the world, Hereford. That’s where we decided to have lunch – steak, no less. It was alright, I still liked the one in Amarillo best. 

Dunkin and Baskin, Roswell style

On a sleepy drive, we reached Roswell just before 3PM. We have not booked a hotel yet, and we contemplated on moving forward. We stopped at a Starbucks again, and there, I looked at Google Maps to check the route to Alamogordo. I noticed a red flashing circle on the map, indicating the McBride fire warning. The route may be affected by the forest fire. Hmmm. When I put down the phone, I saw a local newspaper with the McBride fire as the headline. That’s when I searched about it. When did it start? Tuesday. Hmm, it might not be that big anymore. So I didn’t tell the group about the possibility of being affected by it. LOL.

The Noah’s Arch feature of the Assumption Catholic Church

We looked for a Catholic Church, and we saw one that looks like Noah’s Arch – the Assumption Catholic Church. That’s a neat design. After that stop, we decided to head on for the 2-hr drive to Alamogordo. The route on the way was very scenic, passing by the mountainous Mescalero Reservation. I did not take pictures anymore because I was sleepy. Just enjoyed the view whenever I’m awake. And good thing we weren’t affected by the forest fire. Upon arriving at Alamogordo, we stopped by Starbucks again, LOL. And the forest fire was the topic of the baristas. When my cousin-in-law went back and mentioned it, that’s when I told the group that I saw the warning and kept mum. Haha! In this stop, I slept like a baby for the second time.

Much white

Last day. We started early so we can have breakfast and stay for a couple of hours in White Sands National Park – just 15 minutes away from Alamogordo. And just like the first time, the place made us in awe. It’s just a wonderful patch of land that came out of nowhere! We enjoyed our breakfast (from IHOP), and just appreciated the place, while taking lots of photos. It is a challenge to photograph the place with people, as cameras tend to underexpose the image because of the vast white backdrop. After two hours, and just when more people were coming in, we left the wonderful place, and drove home.

At last, Chandler, Arizona. We could actually go for a longer time on the move. But we really had to catch our guest’s flight home. 

It’s been 3 years! And our trip was a good reintroduction, to the great American road trip. I love it, and I’m just thankful to be alive another year.

For more photographs of the trip, follow @jecoycoy or #thejourneyingengineer on Instagram. I will do a photo dump for the next few days after publishing this blog post.

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