Thursday, August 1, 2013


Leaving Behind Florida beaches

America land of the free home of the brave. I used to wear that T shirt proudly, emphasis on used to. I am not sure if that applies anymore with all the politicians sponsored by an ever growing financial cancer called Corporations. Freedoms are being eroded at an ever rapidly increasing rate and bravery is being replaced by dumbness and stupidity. 

Nevertheless here is my account of crossing this beautiful land called America. 

On a glorious morning of April of 2013 I set out to discover America from sea to (well not shining sea) bone dry desert. I am feeling excited about the journey ahead, mixed with a sense of loss for what I am leaving behind namely my friends, the beach 1 mile from my house and the stormy skies of the Hurricane season. 

The FL turnpike is my road Northward into the Deep South. I salute Disneyworld from a distance as I cross the sign for Kissimmee and continue on North of Orlando encountering lakes and rolling hills all along the highway up to Ocala. I-75 is the way north up to Gainesville, a serious college town in northern Florida home of the famous UF campus and countless Spanish moss infested oak trees. I then proceed an I-10 West, one of America's super highways which crosses the country from coast to coast, from Los Angeles, CA to Jacksonville, FL. The ride is pretty monotonous with a tree lined highway intertwined with fields of grains. I cross Tallahassee, Florida State Capital and continue West towards my stop over in Crestview, FL where I am about to surprise some French friends who have no idea I m just gonna show up at their door.  

Since some of them have heart conditions I decide to call Jim in advance to alert him of the impeding event. I ring the bell and my friend Isabelle answers the door. She can't believe her eyes ! :) This is fun to do ... try it with unsuspecting friends you haven't seen in years ! 

After some fun and frolics around Isabelle and Jim's pool, I continue my journey. Here comes Alabama then Mississippi, the Birthplace of America's Music as it is claimed on the road sign. 
Elvis was born in Tupelo in the Northern part of that state and country singer Faith Hill in Jackson, the location of the story for the movie "The Help" to name a few. One thought comes to my mind as I cross the state line .. what ever happened to the characters of Mississippi Burning, a movie depicting a less than glorious southern hospitality when civil rights activists were being lynched or worse by the keepers of "the race". That powerful image of discrimination in the South is still deeply engraved in a lot of minds to this day. However I met nice folks trying to help me out. No doubt I am a white man so I wouldn't possibly be subjected to that sort of welcome today but in some regard those people are still looking at "foreigners" (anyone not from their town) with an eye of suspicion. I bypass Biloxi, a coastal town transformed into a casino heaven for the Southerners. 

I-10 West
A few more miles down the road and Louisiana welcomes me ! The humidity is high, the trees in full garb. New Orleans is close and the warm moist air of the Gulf sweeps in giving a Caribbean flair to the entire area. With my hotel all booked, my car repaired after a minor incident I proceed towards New Orleans, the speak easy of the South. Indeed a notoriously air of debauchery lingers in the air. I check in into a nice hotel I found online at (my favorite site to seek and find good hotels at a reasonable price) and set out to walk towards the French Quarter center of Jackson Square to have a closer look at the town. 

My hotel for the night
It's almost dinner time and I found a good old Cajun restaurant close to the square called Gumbo Shop. I order an array of specialties including red beans, gumbo and jambalaya some of Cajun's cuisine must have. Indeed this is the place to be. The food is superb and I savor every bite. After such a meal a good walk is a necessity so I set out to the Mississippi River banks to "have me a good look" at it. It is remarkably unremarkable except for the murky dark color of the river and the rocky levee to protect the city from its waters. The whole river side is full of industrial buildings, hardly the romantic imagine one has of it through stories and movies. After all this is a working river, the main drainage of America's heartland waters, its main highway during the past centuries when wood and fur would flow down its waters to be sold off at some trading post flanking its banks. Today there is still a lot of fluvial traffic up and down its strong currents. 

The mighty Mississippi in New Orleans
The French Quarter is to New Orleans what South beach is to Miami. A place to hang, eat, drink, be merry (VERY MERRY) and meet alike people. Bourbon Street is the heart of it all with countless bars, restaurants, hotels housed in old mansions and prostitutes of all kind. This is high time for people looking to party, get drunk and get away with it. The extremely relaxed rules of public drunkenness makes this place a paradise for alcoholics and their friends and a nightmare place for quiet and orderly. There is more vomit on the street than dog poo. As I stroll down Bourbon st at night I can smell beer, fried foods, cigars and cigarettes, whisky and weed. 
Who needs TV when you have Bourbon St reality in your face ? This is reality without some bimbo pretending to have talent. 

Bourbon St

Taking a Tour of the French Quarter at night
The next morning I am out and about at 7am touring the Old French Quarter to beat the crowds who probably went to sleep just a few minutes after I woke up. I like doing this in a new town, go out when the place is empty that way the city can introduce itself to me without any distractions. The Vieux Carre as it is known in French, the oldest neighborhood of New Orleans, is famous for the Spanish colonial architecture built in the 1730's. It is called the French Quarter because of its founder, Jean Baptiste Le Moyne de Bienville, a French colonizer born in Montreal, PQ, who became governor of French Louisiana on numerous occasions. His father, Charles Le Moyne was a native of Dieppe, a city in Normandy, France. 

Spanish balconies in New Orleans
A typical street in the Vieux Carre

Oak Alley Plantation, a Grand estate sugar plantation on the banks of the Mississippi River about 1 hr West of New Orleans. It is named after its main feature, an alley created by a double row of live Virginia Oaks about 800 feet long that was planted in the early 18th century, long before the current home was built. A symbol of the South and its wealth during the 1800's, the mansion was built in two years with the help of African enslaved labor for Jacques Telesphore Roman. Sought to have been designed by his father, the mansion is a good example of Greek revival style with strong influence of Caribbean plantation architecture. 

Oak Alley with the mansion
The alley of Oaks looking towards the Mississippi River (hidden by a levee nowadays)

The doric styled colonnade surrounding the house was built to cool the inside of the mansion at all times of the day. 

Jacques Roman was the original owner of the mansion. His father came from Grenoble, in the French Alps. 

The dining room complete with a pankha (a fan pulled by a rope by a slave)
 The mansion at Le Bon Sejour, the original name of Oak Alley, had all the modern conveniences of the day : Air conditioning by strategic positioning of doors and windows to create air flow, hand operated fans, Limoges china and sterling silverware, large rooms with fireplaces and copper hardware in bathrooms and kitchen. The lady of the house, Celina Pilie, didn't like living in the countryside and yearned for the city life of New Orleans she had left behind. Jacques had appointed the mansion with all the luxuries afforded a mansion in the city for her to feel comfortable. The Romans owned 20 house slaves as well as 93 field slaves. (talk about a tough life for the owners). The sugar plantation is still active at Oak Alley. The property is now ran under a non profit trust established by Oak Alley's last owner, Mrs Andrew Stewart who died in 1972 without heirs. Come visit ! There are rooms and a restaurant on the premises. You can also reserve the property for meetings, a gala dinner or a wedding. 

Arkansas- Louisiana State line
 Welcome to Arkansas (pronounce Ar-Kansas and NOT Arkansal). Making my way West, I take a detour to explore Louisiana in its center up to Arkansas, a state in Central United States made famous by the Clintons. Bill Clinton spent his childhood vacations in a town called Hot Springs, a spa-resort complete with natural hot springs coming out of the mountain, flowing into buildings designed to enjoy all the benefits of natural hot sulphuric water in a clean environment. The spas have been around since the 1870's but the thermal springs were known to Native Americans well before any foreign invaders found them. There are 47 hot springs on the Western slope of the Hot Springs Mountain which yields 1 million gallons per day of hot water (143F or 64C). Some of the water flow has been channeled through pipes throughout the city and comes out of various fountains and faucets free of charge. The area was discovered by outsiders French explorer-priests in 1673, namely father Marquette and Jolliet who claimed the area for France. (men.... we French dudes do get around !)

Hot Springs Mountain
Hot Spring on the mountain side

The Western side of the state of Arkansas is beautifully green and lush. It is home to Ouachita National Forest as well as Ouachita Mountains. From Hot Springs I head West towards Fort Smith, in Northwestern Arkansas close to Oklahoma. The name Ouachita is the french spelling of Wachita meaning "good hunting grounds" and it is also the name of a native american tribe living in the area loosely associated with the Caddo tribes of Louisiana. 
The Ouachita National Forest is made of forests, lakes and mountain areas famous for hunting and fishing to this day. 

Ouachita National Forest

Ouachita River overflowing its banks
By the time I reach Fort Smith the forest cover becomes more sparse where you can see the ground more than the trees. The weather changes from humid and moist to drier and more windy. I am at Oklahoma's gates. 

Oklahoma means the land of Red people in Choctaw language
 "Oklahoma, when the wind comes sweeping down the plain, and the waving wheat can sure smell sweet when the wind comes right behind the rain" those are the eternal lyrics of a song, one of the many sung in the 1955 feature film called "Oklahoma!". I have seen that rain, I have smelled the wheat and I have seen the sometimes devastating wind turning clouds into devilish destructive swirls called tornadoes. This is the southern portion of what is known as Tornado alley, a vast area of flat plains stretching from South Dakota all the way down to Texas. Oklahomans are used to it. When there is a tornado warning issued by the National Weather Service, a good Okie (a loving name given to Oklahomans)  will just keep on going as I found out on the day I was in Tulsa. 

Oklahoma Turnpike to Tulsa

Tulsa was settled in 1828 by a band of Creek Indians until 1889 when it was settled during the Oklahoma Land Run by westerners. The name Tulsa comes from Creek language " Tallasi" meaning Old town. During the majority of the 20th century, Tulsa was referred to as the "Oil capital of the World" as booming oil industries were the main source of income for the area. Its location on the Arkansas river makes it the most inland fluvial port in the United States with access to International waters.  Tulsa is also claiming to be the birthplace of Route 66 and Western swing music. 

I had the privilege of visiting friends in Tulsa who are locals and have lived most of their lives here. This gave me the unique opportunity to discover their city through their eyes and to see unique places I would have missed would I have been visiting on my own. 

Downtown Tulsa on a sunday .... a desert
A young Okie named Tony was my guide during my stay in Tulsa. I have known Tony for many years but just recently got reacquainted because of a tragic event. Seems like tragedy brings people closer together. Why in the hell do we wait for those events to be with people we love ? 

Tony is a fantastic artist and he has a very good insight on what I should see in Tulsa. He happens to be an art teacher and his pupils seem to adore him. He is the antidote to boredom for his students if you ask me. He thinks outside the box and the kids respond to that as I do. I guess I am just a big kid under all those years my body dares to show me when I look in a mirror. Ahah. 

Western Swing Music Museum

Blue Rose is located at River Front park along the Arkansas River

The Historic music venue in Tulsa 
I leave Tulsa the next morning for Pawhuska, the small capital town of the Osage nation in the Northeast corner of the state. A series of country roads run along the fields of wheat and cattle ranches. This smells and feels like cowboy country already. Very little traffic, cows mooing around by the fences, the wheat is as high as one's waist and the bugs are enjoying the recently opened blossoms of some wild flowers I can't recognize. Rolling hills are carving the skies above, like a paintbrush stroke across the horizon. Small towns come and go and the only things lingering in the air are the freshness of the sky and the smell of the prairie. 

Field of Wheat off OK-11

OK11 in Osage County
Osage nation Monument in Pawhuska
Pawhuska is deserted, like a movie set from some sci-fi end-of-the-world apocalyptic story. Some Native American Osage tribal members have sold off the land of their ancestors in order to move to greener pastures but they were smart enough to retain mineral rights to it since oil continues to flow here. Pawhuska is the gateway to America's last stretch of virgin prairie still untouched by development: The Tallgrass Prairie Preserve owned and operated by the Nature Conservancy is 49,000 acres big. The Tall Grass is a native grass which can grow up to 10 feet tall in August. Once the grass has reached this height, the activities inside the preserve are restricted. When the wind blows through the prairie, the tall grass comes alive with a swaying dance across the plain. A band of 2800 free roaming North American Bison roam the prairie like their ancestors did centuries ago, an amazing sight to see. Since the bisons have no predators inside the preserve, a small amount of them are allowed to be hunted down to control the population. Proceeds from the hunt go to maintaining the park. They also have a program which transfers animals to another reserve located in South Dakota. 

Driving country roads is the best way to get a feel of what America is all about. At least in this part of the country, the Heartlands as they are called. If you ever get the urge to do a trip like this, avoid the large interstate roads which are way too monotonous and boring. Well .. I guess except if you want to cross an area devoid of any interest to you. However it is surprising how interesting some of the most remote regions of America can be. A sense of freedom, a sense of discovery and exploration, the reminder of what frontier people, the famed American pioneers of the late 19th century, experienced as they crossed the open plains then full of unexpected dangers, the excitement of the unknown and the promise of a better tomorrow out if you just keep going. 

The promise of free land and a better tomorrow is what drove 50,000 settlers from all corners of the Earth to compete in what was called the Oklahoma Land Run or Rush in 1889. 
The land they were competing to stake was once Indian territory which had been purchased by the US government through the Dawes Act. The act claimed to have been made to facilitate Indian integration into American society however it was actually made to facilitate settlement of a vast expense of land by non Indian Americans. The two million acres of the land run of 1889 were to be shared in 160 acres lots to be settled and farmed according to the terms of the Homestead Act of 1862. 

Near Ponca City

The Pioneer Woman Memorial bench in Ponca City

Oklahoma Land Rush Monument in Ponca City

Leaving Oklahoma through its northern gateway I find myself in Kansas, a state right in the center of the US. A young girl named Dorothy with a small dog named Toto, a yellow brick road, some ruby slippers and a wimp of a Wizard are all found here. Not that I was looking for them but It would have been fun to find a Dorothy in KS ! 

I arrive on a Sunday early afternoon in Wichita, the largest city in the state with just under 400,000 souls calling it home. It's the Riverfest festival along the Arkansas River and a festive atmosphere surrounds the city center near the river banks. Hot dog stands, homemade lemonade, burgers, vendors of all sorts, a street antique car show and some live bands animate the event. I walk around the downtown area in search of historical buildings from the frontier era. There are many remaining such buildings in this town built in 1863 as a trading post and subsequently a key destination for cattle drives from Texas to access railroads earning its nickname of "Cowtown". 

Old Town Wichita has been revived as an entertainment destination. 

Historical courthouse of Sedgwick County in Wichita

Arkansas River in Wichita

Heading West on US400 after a fun time spent exploring Wichita, I reach Dodge City, the cowboy capital of the World right in the middle of the plain. I feel like I am in the middle of a Western film. A wild frontier town famous for its entertainment and the numerous outlaws who lived here, Dodge City is the epitome of what a frontier town ought to be. In the middle of an ocean of prairie, one can easily imagine the precarious state of affairs which was the daily commodity in this part of the country when buffalo roamed by the thousands, frontier men and women were braving danger at every turn during their long journey Westward, native Indians torn between helping those poor souls or fighting them off and cattle men and ranchers turned rogue super heroes would duel it out at gun point on the very streets I am strolling about.   

Boot Hill Museum

Reenactment at Boot Hill

Some of the 70,000 artifacts found in Dodge City

The saloon of Boot Hill complete with a ragtime piano.

Old jail keys and sheriff badges of Dodge City

Pioneers of Dodge City

Boot Hill 

Long horn cattle use to transit through Dodge City

Downtown Dodge has an air of old West

Branding irons were used to mark cattle on the range. Some were signs and some monograms. 

The 100th parallel crosses Dodge City, the geoclimatic delimitation of East and West. The outside temperature dramatically cools down to my liking. On the Eastern side of the parallel I find green, lush, prairie suitable for farming. The Western side, which extends all the way to the Rocky Mountains is dry, dusty and more suitable to cattle ranching. As a Western outpost on the Frontier, Dodge City, for a time became the center of entertainment paired with outlaw violence. The town originally named Fort Mann (thinking of you Danielle!) built in 1847 was intended to provide protection to pioneers travelling the Santa Fe Trail. In 1872 the settlement near Fort Dodge grew from a tent to a full town in less than a year. The advance of the Santa Fe Railroad sped up the development and eventually led to Dodge City becoming the main cowtown on the prairie. The town became symbol of rowdy, loud and was known as the Sodome of the West. The early 1870's saw a fierce period of gun fightings, public drunkenness and prostitution. Lawmen such as Wyatt Earp and Bat Masterson became legends for restoring order in Dodge City. 

Continuing westward, I encounter a dry landscape devoid of lush grassland. The horizon is big and so are the clouds rolling down from the Rockies. It's windy and dusty. Hard to imagine how people can make a living out here in such an environment so unsuitable in appearance to development of any sort. Town after small town the same pattern: gas stations, fast food restaurants and a combination pharmacy/gift shop all in one. This is Western Kansas and Eastern Colorado, land of cattle feed lots and a very large Tyson processing plant. 

Western Kansas

Finally I am entering Colorado. I now have been on the road for almost 1 week and starting to feel I am getting closer to my new home in Las Vegas. Colorado holds a special place in my heart since I visited for the first time at the tender age of 18 when I was hosted by a family in Evergreen, a small town outside of Denver, for a home stay to perfect my English. To me Colorado was America, all the Eastern side of those United States just never felt that way. I was finally getting where I am supposed to be. The West ! 

KS-CO State line

This antique steam engine built in 1906 worked until 1953 when it was decommissioned. In Lamar, CO.
The road leads me to Pueblo then on to Canyon City, my stop for the night where I m greeted by a Polish lady mending the motel desk. The next morning the temperature is significantly cooler which makes it more comfortable. I decide to stop by to see the bridge over the Arkansas River at Royal Gorge. It's on my planned way in any case so what the hell. The Royal Gorge also called the Grand Canyon of the Arkansas, is a deep 10 mile long gorge which has drops of more than 1250 feet (380 meters) in places. The bridge is not used for traffic but rather an attraction on its own to view the canyon and the river below as well as entertaining visitors with bungee jumping opportunities. 

The foothills of the Rockies at Royal Gorge
From here on, the Rocky Mountains lay ahead for the next few hundred miles. The terrain dramatically changes from Eastern Colorado, from flat sloping fields to mountain passes, valleys, high snow capped peaks, canyons and alpine forests. 

Driving around Colorado is magical. The landscape really speaks to the visitor. It touches your senses and a deep feeling of comfort blankets your entire being. Crossing the San Juan mountains area is a spectacular drive ! 

San Juan Mountains in SW Colorado

Downtown Salida, CO inside the San Juan Valley

Arkansas River headwaters in Salida CO

Driving up the Wolf Creek Pass

Continental Divide at Wolf Creek Pass at 10857 Ft (3,309 meters)
Passing through Western towns dotting the forested landscape at San Juan mountains, I reach the Wolf Creek Pass, a high mountain pass in Southwestern Colorado. This is the continental divide, a geographical line separating the Eastern and Western watersheds. The waters to the East of the divide flow into the Atlantic ocean while the westerly waters flow to the Pacific. That line is defined by where the highest mountain peaks are located along the Rockies as illustrated by the map above. So once I am over the pass I am truly in the American Far West. 

West Fork of the San Juan River down below the pass

San Juan National Forest 
Continuing westward into the SW Colorado region, I pass Pagosa Springs, a spa sort of town in the middle of the countryside. Cabins are dotted along the roadside for visitors to enjoy the incredible scenery during all seasons of the year. This is a hiker, biker and skiers paradise at each period of the year. The road goes on to Durango, a frontier town deep in the mountainous SW. I visited Durango back in 1989 with both my parents and I almost made a stop there to relive it a bit but decided instead to head on towards Page, Arizona my night stop. But before reaching it I have a few stops planned along the way. The first one being a National Park deep into the countryside known as Mesa Verde. A UNESCO World heritage site, the park is the largest archaeological preserve in the United States. Among the many treasures found here, the Cliff Palace is the most famous, for the complexity of its construction and location, out of the 600 cliff dwellings structures built by ancient Puebloan tribes, the Anazasi who lived here some 1200 years ago. 

The Cliff Palace

Cliff Palace Canyon

Scenery around Mesa Verde NP
As vegetation becomes more and more sparse and the temperature reaches 100F or 38C, the desert seems to be all around out of nowhere. Such a sudden transition. Going from mountain with green forested slopes to semi arid to totally arid in just a few dozen miles. 

Arizona is close. I can sense it. The enormous Colorado Plateau stretching far into the distance appears in an instant with the first mesas around the national park. I pass the town of Cortez, home to the Ute Mountain Tribe and soon drive into New Mexico briefly to reach Arizona. I drive on to the 4 corners monument, deep into the desert at the crossing of 4 states. This is the only place in the US where 4 states meet in one point : Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Arizona.

4 Corners Monument located on Navajo Tribal land

My next stop is Monument Valley, a desert lunar landscape on the Colorado Plateau made famous by Hollywood in the 1930's. It is a collection of enormous sandstone buttes, some of them reaching 1000 ft (300 m) above the valley floor. If you've seen John Wayne movies you have probably seen this place on celluloid. Of course the experience of seeing it live is way more interesting. 

I drove down to the valley floor to take a good look

For lazy ass tourists who just want to snap a shot

After a spectacular sunset over the buttes, I drive on to Page, AZ on Lake Powell my stop for the night. 

The next morning I wake up early to go explore the desert around Page before setting off to visit one of the World most incredible wonders, Antelope Canyon. 

Here are some shots of the scenery one encounters around Page. 

The Dam at Glen Canyon

Glen Canyon

Colorado River 

Glen canyon

Horseshoe bend of the Colorado River at Glen Canyon

Lake Powell, a man made lake created by the Glen Canyon Dam 
I reserve the early afternoon to visit Antelope Canyon, a slot canyon, created by erosion, mostly water. The name of the canyon in Navajo is "Tse bighanilini" meaning "the place where water runs through rock". It is the most photographed and most visited slot canyon in the American southwest. The canyon can only be visited by conducted tours organized by various tribal organizations and runs between $45 and $80 per visit. There are two distinctive parts of the canyon: the upper and the lower canyons. I got to visit the Upper canyon but I will make sure to go visit the Lower, which has far less visitors than the previous because of the difficulties to access it. 
Here are some images of the Upper canyon. 

I am almost home. Just a few more hours westward and I ll be able to enjoy my very own space once again. The road leads me into Utah, one of my favorite states. It is full of natural wonders. On my way to St George, the last large town in southwestern Utah right on I-15, I make a stop at Zion National Park, one of America's grandest scenery. Zion is located at the crossroad of various geographic zones: The Colorado Plateau, Mojave Desert and Great Basin. This location gives the visitor a unique opportunity to discover a wide range of animal and plant life. Zion Park features canyons, buttes, mountains, monoliths, rivers, slot canyons and natural arches. 289 bird species can be found here as well as 32 species of reptiles. 

Zion Mountain buffaloes

Zion NP

Zion NP
From St George, its all desert all the way to Las Vegas. A short hop into Arizona, along the Virgin River canyon and Nevada welcomes me with its first town called Mesquite where I can see the huge neon signs advertising the first casinos since Biloxi. I reach home at sunset before a spectacular image of a Western Panorama. 

Mojave Desert around Las Vegas

To all the potential travelers out there. Crossing America is an experience not to be missed. It truly is a one of a kind trip. Plan wisely as the roads are many and the choices unlimited. I tried to combine country and city but I mostly ended up in the country, where America heart beats more openly. I got to experience a slice of American life through a huge variety of people, scenery and terrains yet being in one country. That really sums it up doesn't it. We are blessed to have such beauty within our borders. Our people are many, different, living their own lives at the pace they each choose for themselves. Yet they can all call themselves Americans no matter where they are. That be in a bajou of Louisiana, in the countryside of Arkansas, the plains of Kansas, the green lush valleys of Colorado or the stark desert land of the Southwest. And you can even find a Mc Wrap everywhere ! 

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