I’M DRIVING INTO the sun.
Orange light streams onto the straight, flat, black-tar ribbon rolled out in front of me. I’ve got my $5 clip-on shades engaged and the visor down, but I’m blinded to the point that I can’t tell whether the dark mass uplifting the horizon 10-11 o’clock is another butte or the front end of the next thunderstorm blowing in from the southwest.
This is what I came for. The tightness in my stomach as I look side to side at unbroken plain, the grays and dull reds of earth flickering beneath the muted turquoise of desert sage. This is roadtrip.
Leg #1 took me from home and the hot Texas Hill Country, to the mesas and Apache and Navajo reservations of New Mexico, to Monument Valley, Glen Canyon, and Utah’s Zion NP, across Nevada wasteland, into the mountains and giant conifer forests of California, all the way to the Bay.
I camped on the way, discovered wifi-ed coffeeshops where I thought there’d be none, hiked where I could, and gathered a couple pieces of local travel advice. Here’s what I learned:
Campgrounds I Liked
Bottomless Lakes State Park, Roswell, NM
Just 15 miles outside of town, but completely hidden in a dip in the landscape. Tent sites are $10. Not much hiking, but the chain of little sinkhole lakes and the park’s “secret-feeling” location beneath the southern New Mexico plain are novel.
Riana Campground, Abiquiu Lake, NM
This is a private joint used mainly by boaters/fishers, but its spot on a bluff overlooking the reservoir and surrounded by buttes and cliffs is very cool.
Caveats: July and August are “monsoon season,” according to the camp host. Make sure your tent fly is sealed. Also, the campground has a strict no-alcohol policy.
Snow Canyon State Park, St. George, UT
Sprawl is butting in from the south and east, but I definitely felt “away” once I got in here. Summer afternoons bake, so it’s good that the dozen or so tent sites ($16) have some shade. Several trails run across the sand dunes and volcanic pumice fields of a very “geologic” landscape.
As a freelancer, I’m only free to travel if there’s wifi. With motels out and camping in, the hunt for coffeeshops with a reliable connection and enough atmosphere to justify a few hours’ stop becomes a daily routine. Here’s what I found:
Baker Street Coffee House, San Angelo, TX – Don’t let the strip-mall location turn you away. Good sandwiches, coffee, and wifi here.
Collected Works Bookstore and Coffeehouse, Santa Fe, NM – Looks a lot like a Borders cafe, but this place is local. Nice folks working the counter. Finding parking can be a pain.
Andrea Kristina’s Bookstore and Kafe, Farmington, NM – This is really the only place I’d want to stop in Farmington. Gets busy at lunch. Menu is decent.
Oscar’s Cafe, Springdale, UT – Right outside of Zion, this is a restaurant, not a coffeeshop. But they don’t mind you hanging out, sipping local brews and getting some work done. Just remember to be considerate and pack it up during peak meal times.
Stellar Brew, Mammoth Lakes, CA – One of probably many places in town, this is where I happened to land. They open at 5:30am(!). Coffee is supercharged and the music grooves.
Local Travel Secrets
Glen Canyon, Page, AZ
After seeing my itinerary, a reader named Audrey commented on my personal blog, WayWorded:
…if you happen to drive thru Page, AZ I recommend to cliff jump at “the chains” and order a “rainbow” at RD’s Drive Thru! Have Fun!
I was actually in Page when I saw the comment, and went to follow up on her tip the next day. “Chains” is a park area accessed off Highway 89 just east of the Glen Canyon Dam.
Despite it being a hot as hell Saturday noon, only a few locals were enjoying the water. There are cliffs from 5 to around 30 feet, just a five-minute walk from the parking area. Confirm the safety of the higher ones with someone in the know, as water levels fluctuate. Watch out for boats.
Gas station gourmet, Lee Vining, CA
Meeting up with Trips intern Sarah Park was a bonus on this leg of the trip. She mandates a stop at the Mobil Mart at the eastern terminus of Tioga Pass Rd., where it hits 395. It’s no ordinary gas station restaurant:
So, maybe it’s true that the Mobil Mart’s Whoa Nellie Deli exists in a gaping culinary black hole. I could pull up to a gas station, buy a corndog and probably be pretty excited about the experience considering how sparse the options are for real, fresh, actual delicious food. And yes, maybe when I say that this is the best meal I have ever eaten inside a gas station, it doesn’t sound like much of an endorsement.
But while the Mobil Mart could still rake it in by peddling over-priced gasoline and 96-day-old Lunchables, instead they serve lobster taquitos to burly fishermen in flannel. It’s the best food you’ll eat within a 300-mile radius, plus a view of Mono Lake, a full schedule of live outdoor concerts all summer, and mango margaritas by the pitcher.
The lobster taquitos are LEGENDARY, the fish tacos are also a favorite, and if you feel like eating man-food, try the buffalo meatloaf.
Stay tuned for update #2, which is going to be packed with insider travel tips for enjoying the Bay Area.
Hal’s not the only Matador staffer fond of the roadtrip. Check out Joshywashington in Montana Road Trip: Yellowstone and Ian MacKenzie in The Great Matador Roadtrip: Vancouver to San Francisco.