Oregon Trail Experiences

The purpose of this post is to hit some specific highlights from the overall trip across the country and to give some insight into how Rachael and I viewed different experiences.  We came up with the categories and then got to work on making our own personal lists for each without consulting so that we didn’t influence one another’s thoughts too much.

Most Stressful Drive

Jason

  • Easily the most stressful drive I had to do during the trip was outside of San Francisco.  The Bay Area is beautiful and coastal, but it’s also wedged right between the water and some pretty serious mountains.  Because of this geography, a lot of the roads in the area that aren’t part of the Interstate system tend to be very winding and very narrow.  Throw in the fog that rolls in from the waters most evenings, and you have a low-visibility, high-attention drive that worked my nerves after an evening spent in San Francisco.  That drive, along with the general stress associated with navigating a new city for the first time, led Rachael to suggest to me that we spend the next day just relaxing in the Half-Moon Bay area where we were staying.
  • Honorable Mention – The day we left Ft. Bragg we expected to only have a four hour drive to our campsite in the Del Norte Redwoods State Park up close to the California-Oregon border.  What we didn’t anticipate was that the mountain roads are subject to constant rebuilding due to erosion, so we had multiple delays on the switchbacks that turned our four hour drive into around a seven hour one.  I think that one was hard on both of us, but since it happened in daylight when we were in road trip mode, it didn’t grate as hard on me as the Bay Area had.

Rachael

  • For some reason, I kept ending up with most of the interesting and difficult legs of driving, including most of the bad weather. I guess Jason’s sunny personality just bends the road to his will, or else the road heard my cry for adventure and threw everything it had at me. This means at various points, I drove through big city traffic (Houston, Texas during rush hour was particularly terrifying and confusing, and I’m pretty sure I still owe some toll fees?), dense coastal mountain fog, and an eerie desert thunderstorm where lightning danced around us for an hour through the spattering rain.
    But the worst drive for me happened on our very first day, as we sped through Alabama into Mississippi. Being former residents of Georgia, Jason and I are familiar with tropical thunderstorms this time of year. These storms gather mass over the Gulf of Mexico, then plow their way inland in thick bands of very heavy rain so strong you can’t even hear the thunder, which is also all around you. So I’m driving down a sunny road, when far ahead we see the blue sky just sorta end into a black cloud bank taking up the whole horizon. I’m speeding along, skimming for signs of tornadoes, but it’s just this huge pulsating thunderhead trailing a skirt of mist. And then I see we’re coming up on a huge, long bridge, only the bridge just vanishes halfway into mist where it meets the start of the tropical thunderstorm. Jason snapped a quick picture of it just before we entered.
    The rain was so thick and heavy we slowed down to a crawl because we could barely see the car in front of us otherwise. I could actually feel the rain pressing against the car as we struggled on at 20mph across that bridge. Every 10 minutes or so, the band of rain would end and we’d get a couple minutes at a higher speed until the next band hit. It was treacherous and dangerous driving. When we finally drove out of the storm, I told Jason I’d done my leg, even though I technically had another hour on the clock. He completely agreed and took over the wheel.
Most Scenic Drive

Rachael

  • Holy wow, was this road trip SCENIC, and it’s hard to even compare the legs because there were so many points of perfect beauty that were still very different from one another. For me, this is a toss-up between the Northern California coastline and the mesa deserts of New Mexico and Arizona. It’s been a very long time since I’ve been to a true desert, and NM / AZ bring desert beauty in buckets. It’s the color and the geological formations, how you get all these gorgeous painted rock layers that shift and change with the light as the day goes on. At sunrise and sunset, it just murders you.
    But I think NorCal edges out the desert by just a teensy bit, in my very unbiased opinion. The NorCal coastline was so beautiful that I started swearing aloud at it because “This is pretty” was no longer cutting it. “WHAAAAT is that a waterfall going down a cliff into the ocean? Fuck you, California, and that pristine beach with the sun going down red on the water! No, you did NOT put another damn overlook in that coastal redwood forest, did you? YOU DID, DIDN’T YOU?” And so on and so forth.

Jason

  • I had to think long and hard to decide which drive I liked the best.  There was some spectacular scenery all across the Southwest, from the big open plains and multicolored sunset in Texas to the huge rocky formations in Arizona; California had a generous share of beautiful stretches, like just about everything that we saw north of the Bay Area.  It was all a lot to take in, and any given drive held some sight that could take your breath away.  I think my favorite for sheer spectacle was the drive through the Arizona desert though.  When we left New Mexico, we ran into a little bit of rain, and that little bit of rain signaled the edge of a full on storm.  The desert is so wide and flat that we could easily see the epicenters of the storm miles away.  I tried for a while to get pictures of the lightning that was flashing out there, but it never worked out.  Later on Rachael and I learned that desert storms are actually very dangerous because there’s always a risk of flash flood; the ground gets so parched and compacted that when it does rain, the soil isn’t porous enough to soak up all the water, so it just runs along the top of it.  We didn’t have to deal with any of that though.
Yes, and…

Jason

  • Early on, Rachael and I established an ethos for our road trip; we’d approach it with the attitude that outside our scheduled stops we were willing to explore and do anything that struck our fancy.  This led to more than a few days where we went to a location or saw a sight that we hadn’t expected to hit on our trip, and we appreciated it all the more because of it.  Probably my favorite unplanned stop was a visit to the Trees of Mystery in northern California.  This roadside attraction has huge statues of Paul Bunyan and Babe the Blue Ox constructed out in its parking lot; that was enough for us to decide that we were going to detour back from our campground the next day to go visit the statues at the very least.  What we didn’t know before we arrived was that the Paul Bunyan statue is more than just a statue; inside it is a control booth where an operator can make the statue’s hand wave and speak out of a loudspeaker as Paul Bunyan.  Rachael and I didn’t go hike the trails inside the Trees of Mystery, but we had a blast watching little kids arguing with the statue.

Rachael

  • This category represents the things we did on the fly when we got a tip or saw an interesting sign. This includes a wide variety of historical sites, restaurants, and roadside attractions all along our route.
    My personal favorite was visiting The Big Texan Steak Ranch, a roadside attraction/restaurant on the old historical Route 66 in Amarillo, Texas (thanks, Rebecca Middleton, for the tip!). It has a giant dinosaur wearing cowboy boots sitting outside, a bunch of creepy animatronics, and also the, er, “steak ranch” has a great menu, plus an ongoing eating contest where poor schmucks attempt to earn a free meal by downing a 72oz steak in 1 hour. This stop ended a very long drive through most of Texas and provided some welcome cheesiness (and steak!) at the end of a tiring day.
    A close second is definitely our stop in Albuquerque, New Mexico the following day, where we visited friends at the zoo and had a great meal. Which truthfully might take first in this category, except for it didn’t have a giant dinosaur statue, and I Brake For Dinosaurs (TM).
Best Hotel

Rachael

  • Well, first off, shout out to the Timbers Inn in Eugene, Oregon, which we checked into on the fly because we were sick of camping and just wanted a real shower. That was was way ridiculously nicer than it had a right to be for the price. I mean, they had complimentary local beer on tap in the reception area! And there was one of those awesome rain showers in the shower! It was quite classy, and we loved it.
    But really, let’s talk about the Fleur de Lis Inn and B&B in New Orleans, because THAT place had so much character that it’s truly unforgettable. I booked the room blind through a deal site, so I was surprised when during check-in, the innkeeper asked whether we’d seen pictures of our room online? Nope, I said.
    “Well, you’re going to *really enjoy* the Hollywood Room,” she said with a nod and a wink.
    The Hollywood Room, as it turns out, is a converted garden shed that has been covered walls and ceiling with mirrors. Mirrors EVERYWHERE. Did I mention the toilet is located in this room, and is also included in the MIRRORS EVERYWHERE? But what we really loved about this place were the common areas. The inn has incorporated part of the actual interstate overpass into its layout, so you can chill out outdoors on a couch during a rainstorm and stay completely dry while all that traffic whooshes past overhead. It really was pretty awesome in a way I can’t fully put words to. It made us want to book up all the rooms in the inn and hang out there with some friends all night, talking and drinking and playing board games or such.

Jason

  • The places where we stayed during our road trip varied a lot in quality.  We hoped that we’d be able to save a bit of money by camping in parks for a few nights, but we also recognized that two and a half weeks on the road could get tiring very quickly, so we built in a few luxurious stops along the way to recuperate.  What we learned is that we really are not big fans of the bed and breakfast experience, at least not when the proprietors seem very much to be in the business just so they can socialize with their guests.  Camping was fun, but after we accidentally punctured our air mattress after the first night in the Grand Canyon, we were significantly less enthused about it (happy ending: we found the leak and repaired our mattress so it’s doing great now!).  It was the more mid-range hotels that suited us best, and we were really taken with the roadside charm of the ones that were more humble than a generic Holiday Inn.  Still, I think the best one we stayed in was one that we didn’t even originally plan on going to.  After camping among the redwoods, Rachael and I realized we were not in the mood to do two more nights of camping before we arrived in Portland, so on the way into Oregon we booked a hotel in Eugene called the Timbers Inn.  It was relatively cheap, and we figured we could kill a couple days in a college town easily regardless of how nice the accommodations were.  We lucked out though, because when we arrived at the Timbers we found that the place had just recently been renovated; for the price it was an incredibly comfortable hotel that had a beer tap in the hotel office (one free pour per person when you book a room).  We spent a whole day staying in our room and watching ’80s movies because it was such a pleasant environment.  If we ever have reason to go back to Eugene and the prices are still good, I’d definitely want to stay at the Timbers again.
Best Food

Jason

  • I’ll be honest, the thought of listing the best food that I had while we were on the road is a really daunting one.  Yes, we were moving, but we also treated it like vacation and ate a lot of good stuff.  I had the first steak I’ve eaten in years in Amarillo, Texas (it was pretty good, though definitely not something I’d enjoy eating regularly), ate a really outstanding eggplant sandwich with some super creamy macaroni & cheese in Williams, Arizona, and chowed down on freshly baked artichoke bread in Pescadero, California.  The thing that sticks out most for me though is a bowl of chajang myun that I had from a Korean noodle place in Eugene.  I’ve never had chajang myun before; it’s a noodle dish with a black bean sauce that looks like death but tastes delightful.  It’s certainly not everyday food, but it was good enough in this case that Rachael and I decided to eat dinner at the noodle place both nights we were in Eugene.

Rachael

  • We ate a LOT of good food on this trip, and oftentimes I think it tasted best when we were really hungry, whatever the food quality. I remember especially eating lamb and dolmas at a Mediterranean restaurant called Fadi’s in Houston… mmm…
    I’m going to have to pick two favorites. First, Cocina Azul in Albuquerque, where our friends Sarah and Josh introduced us to the local controversy over red vs. green salsa (after trying both of them, I’m on Team Red, for the record). This restaurant features New Mexican food, and while I’m not entirely sure of the exact difference between Mexican and New Mexican, it was memorably delicious, and the company was extraordinary and fun. It made me wish I had more excuses to visit the area, just so we could debate the merits of fried dough the world over with our friends.
    Tied for first would be this taco place in Anaheim, California my friends and I randomly wandered past after grabbing coffee at the Ink & Bean Coffee Shop. It was one of those places that does Californian/Mexican fusion or something? [Jason: I looked it up; this place was called Pour Vida Latin Flavor.] All I know is they put sushi ingredients into tacos, and also served this homemade fruit juice that also contained jalapenos, and geez it was good and I want to go back there like yesterday.
Best Beer

Rachael

  • We visited 5 actual breweries on our trip, and several other excellent brewpubs, with a focus on trying as many different local beers as possible. I have clear and easy favorites in this category, so let’s get to it!
    My favorite brewery was North Coast Brewery in Fort Bragg, California. I’m basically at the dead center of their selection choices, as they had several great Belgian-style ales, including one Brother Thelonius, plus a really great seasonal Berliner Weisse made with peaches that I could drink all day. Also a great lineup of IPAs, and of course their signature Old Rasputin Stout, which I’d tried all the way out in Athens, originally.
    My favorite brewpub was this place in Williams, Arizona that did both local beer and local mead flights. Yep, that’s right, they had several kinds of MEAD available for sampling at once! That place was great. Also, it had a muscle car parked in the restaurant. Wish I could remember what it’s called. (Jason, do you remember?) [Jason: I didn’t, but I looked it up!  The place with the excellent beer and mead flights was the South Rim Wine & Beer Garage.]

Jason

  • On the way through California and Oregon, Rachael and I managed to visit five breweries in a little over a week.  We don’t like to drink very much at a time (too much alcohol and my palette for beer just sort of disappears), but we sampled a lot of good stuff on the northern leg of our trip.  Probably the best beer that I remember having was a wonderfully fruity Belgian ale at North Coast Brewery in Ft. Bragg, California.  It tasted of apricots.  I’m also pretty fond of stouts in general, and there was a good vanilla stout that I think I had an Ninkasi Brewing Company in Eugene.  I’m a sucker for beers that don’t finish really bitter, and I remember Ninkasi’s Oatis being particularly smooth drinking.
Best View

Jason

  • Honestly nothing really compared with the views along the Pacific Coast Highway.  The stretch through northern California was torturous for traffic reasons, but it had no shortage of gorgeous vistas overlooking the ocean.  There was one spot on the day when we drove back south a little ways to visit the Trees of Mystery that we stopped and saw whales breaching out on the water.  That was a pretty cool moment.

Rachael

  • I mean, it feels like cheating to say the Grand Canyon, but it’s the Grand Canyon, y’know? Sometimes when you visit famous landmarks or attractions, they’re just kind of a letdown. You show up, you take a picture, and that’s that. I feel this way about the Eiffel Tower, for example. Cool building, famous, not much more to it (except maybe the light show at night). But maaaan, the Grand Canyon, y’all! It’s not so much seeing it, as it is seeing it from multiple angles during the full length of the day as you hike along it for hours and hours. That canyon is RL SRS BZNS, y’know? Like the rest of the desert, it shifts and changes colors throughout the day, as the clouds and sun move, as *you* move. And there are all these kamikaze squirrels running along the rim, taking dives to wherever squirrels go in a big place like that. And huge birds soaring across the open space! And terrifying thunderstorms dancing along the rim! That place is ridiculously beautiful, and will steal your breath for hours.
Nerp.

Rachael

  • Bourbon Street in New Orleans was the Platonic Ideal of disappointment. I was expecting some sort of interesting cultural experience, like Moulin Rouge-type vice, but instead it was just that seedy part of any town where you find the strip clubs and bad bars multiplied by 100. I guess if I were an 18-year-old college boy on his first Spring Break, I *might* have found it interesting, but there was literally no other appeal to it. I’d love to revisit New Orleans, but I won’t waste my time on Bourbon Street in the future.

Jason

  • The trip did have a couple of really unsettling moments.  The clearest one in my mind was actually when we stopped in a small town on the way out of Ft. Bragg to refuel where we witnessed at a gas station a group of four people whom I can only describe as California rednecks run up on another guy on a skateboard like they were going to attack him.  He ran away, but the fact that this happened right in front of our car in broad daylight was disturbing, to say the least.  We left that town very quickly.
“We’re Not in Georgia Anymore”

Jason

  • Having lived my whole life in Georgia, I’m not terribly attuned to what sort of things can be different outside of the South.  The biggest moment of culture shock for me was probably when we were hanging out in the Unsung Brewery in Anaheim with a few local friends and decided to get a group picture.  Being an educator, I’ve always been wary of documenting myself consuming alcohol.  It’s one of those cultural quirks of the South that educators are not supposed to be people who drink, and breaking that illusion can have serious consequences (the irony of this culture is that it’s one big open secret that most of the educators I’ve worked with make no bones about drinking while off the job among themselves).  Our Los Angeles friends, who happen to also work in education, were befuddled by this fact and assured us that no one on the West Coast cares if educators drink when they aren’t working.

Rachael

  • So we’re on our first day of driving through Texas, and it’s time to stop and get gas. We spot a place called “Buc-ee’s” on the side of the road. It reminded me of a CostCo: a giant warehouse building with a little gas station attached, and it’s absolutely hopping. We figured it must be some sort of superstore, so we stopped for gas.
    We were wrong. It was not a superstore. Nopenopenope. It was a *gas station.* A huge, huge gas station.
    So as I’m walking through the world’s biggest gas station convenience store, complete with the Wall O’ Snacks and a bunch of decorative patriotic yard crosses, I start noticing all these dudes strutting around in bright cowboy costumes, complete with fringe and spurs and bright blue leather, all color coordinated. And then there’s the women who all have REALLY BIG HAIR, like they’re practically carrying around blonde animals curled up on their scalps. And at first I’m about to laugh at how silly everyone looks, but then it hits me: THOSE ARE NOT COSTUMES. Those are Texans.
    Never has a region so quickly fulfilled all my stereotypes at one go. Thank you, Buc-ee’s. You were an experience that did not disappoint..
“Well, That Was a Place”

Rachael

  • Clovis, New Mexico. Lacks the spectacular scale and nice wide roads of Texas, but doesn’t have the harsh desert beauty of the rest of New Mexico. We got in after dusk and left before dawn, and that felt about right to me.

Jason

  • Clovis, New Mexico appears on maps of the United States as a town just across the Texas-New Mexico border.  It exists for an Air Force base that’s located there.  Rachael and I arrived at our hotel (a generic Holiday Inn) after sundown, and we left before sunrise the next morning.
“I Wish We Were Moving Here…”

Jason

  • One of the fun aspects of a cross-country road trip that ends with you relocating to a new place is the fact that along the way you get to play the game of imagining where you might like to end up as an alternative to your actual destination.  Rachael and I have a lot of those moments as we got farther west.  It probably hit the first time in Albuquerque, which was a delightful town to pass through (and the first place where we realized that the climate had truly changed in a way that we could be happy with).  Probably the strongest feeling for both of us though was in various places throughout California.  It’s a really big state, and traveling the length of it in a week gives you enough time to get a sense of how different regions have significantly different local cultures.  Probably the strongest contentment I felt was when we were hanging out in Half-Moon Bay; it’s a relatively quiet coastal town with easy access to a big city and a vibrant local scene.  If Oregon doesn’t work out for some reason, I’d be happy checking out a couple places in California.

Rachael

  • I mean, I always get the “maybe we should just move here” feeling when we visit Los Angeles, but that’s honestly more related to the friendship than the actual city (although the metro area has its high points, and we always have fun as long as it’s not Hollywood). But I kind of fell in love with Northern California on this trip, partially because we spent so much time there, and partially because in many ways it represents everything I love in life all in one region. Oceans! Mountains! Great cities! Adorable roadside produce stands getting into avocado price wars with their neighbors! Great food and beer, and lots of character! It felt like every time we made an incidental stop, we wound up in the middle of another farmer’s market on some gorgeous sunny day. It was a happy leg of our trip, and it made me think if this whole Oregon thing proves too snowy, it wouldn’t be half bad to just skip on down the coast a little further and we’d settle just fine.
“We’ll Be Back–With Friends”

Rachael

  • I’m keeping this short since I’ve touched on these places in other sections, but definitely the Grand Canyon to camp and hike with friends, and to that quirky B&B in New Orleans to chill beneath an overpass late at night after walking the French Quarter and visiting Nicolas Cage’s death pyramid mausoleum. Because those are experiences I definitely want to share with my friends ASAP. 😀

Jason

  • Contrasting with places that we think would be nice alternatives to living in Portland, Rachael and I also developed a sort of running list of locales that we wanted to revisit someday with friends in tow.  The Bay Area was lots of fun in this respect, but the place that I think we were both most impressed by was the bed and breakfast we stayed at in New Orleans.  Aside from Bourbon Street being a huge disappointment, New Orleans was a fun town, and the most delightful part of our stay there was definitely our lodgings.  The Fleur de Lis Mansion is a historic building only a mile or two from the French Quarter, and it has the most kitschy sense of decor.  I say this with nothing but positive feelings though; the place knows its style and it fully commits.  It has two outdoor hot tubs and a lounge area that’s located underneath a highway overpass one pillar of which is used as a wall for the lounge.  Rachael and I stayed here because we got a really good deal through a website for one night in the bed and breakfast’s smallest room, which we discovered on arrival was outfitted from floor to ceiling with mirrors.  It was a strange experience, to be sure, but Rachael and I concluded that the next time we came to New Orleans we’d have to bring a big group to rent out the whole hotel and luxuriate in its strangeness.
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