As some of you know, Marline and I went to Arizona for vacation this past week (March 15 through March 20, 2009). We saw quite a bit, learned a lot, and got really tired.
The following is an account of that trip — not too brief, but hopefully fun to read.
It was a whirlwind of a week, with over 3,000 miles of driving in five days’ time. To be exact, we drove 3,299.8 miles, beginning Sunday morning and ending very late on Friday night (just before midnight).
It all started at 7:33 a.m. on Sunday, March 15, 2009, when we left our apartment in Seminole, Okla., in a heavy fog. Marline was driving. We got on Interstate 40 after a few minutes and headed west, cruising easily through the early Sunday morning traffic of Oklahoma City as the fog lifted and the sun came out.
From that point on, we saw only sunny skies until Friday when we returned under a lightly overcast sky.
Our first stop on Sunday wasn’t until 9:30 a.m., when we pulled into Love’s (mile-marker 71) for a bathroom break. I spent $1.10 on M&M’s, the smallest and first of many expenditures on this trip. That was 132 miles from home.
By the way, if you drive on I-40 a lot near the Oklahoma City area and eastward, then you don’t know what you’re missing. Once we were west of OKC, the road smoothed out, almost as if it were built by experienced contractors with road-building machinery (because I-40 east of OKC was obviously built and continuously “repaired” by mentally challenged children using their bare hands.)
At 12 noon (CDT), we exited in Amarillo, Texas, where we filled up with gas and got McDonald’s lunch to go. I also bought sunglasses, since it was my turn to drive and I’d forgotten to bring my own. The Texas sun was bright and high in the sky. That stop cost us about $33, all told. Calculations show that we averaged 27.6 miles per gallon since we left home, which is about average for the Buick on the highway.
A Note on Amarillo
Amarillo was built with cross-country drivers in mind, at least the part around I-40. I mention this because another city we’d see later was NOT built with this in mind. In Amarillo, there were half a dozen McDonald’s and other familiar brand names all throughout the I-40 route. Gas and food was plentiful, easy to find. All the on-ramps were easy-access, from either side of the Interstate Highway.
Just over an hour later, we switched to Rocky Mountain Daylight Time, as we pulled into a Rest Area inside the New Mexico state line. We also were able to increase our rate of speed, since the I-40 speed limit in New Mexico is 75 miles per hour, compared to 70 in both Oklahoma and Texas.
From there, we made it to Albuquerque at 3:25 p.m. MDT (4:25 CDT) and began looking for a place to pull off for gas and food.
A Note on Albuquerque
If you’re planning a trip through the Great Southwest on I-40, don’t plan on stopping in New Mexico’s largest city. For one thing, there are 20-foot high barrier walls on either side of the interstate (perhaps to block the road noise for inhabitants?) and absolutely NO billboards or other highway signs that notify drivers of places to pull off. None. Not even those blue government signs that list the restaurants or hotels for each exit.
A Note on I-40
Throughout Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona, I-40 was unbelievably smooth, compared to “back home.” There was quite a bit of construction through New Mexico (most of the state, apparently), with signs warning of “rough roads next 12 miles,” but these stretches were all significantly smoother and easier to drive than any part of the same highway in OKC or east of there.
All of the lane markers were clearly marked with bright paint (and reflectors in many places), which is something Oklahoma hasn’t yet researched or tried. Informative signs preceded every exit, and every exit was easy to get on and get off.
One thing that the road in New Mexico had in common with its counterpart in Oklahoma is that all of the “road construction” zones were completely devoid of workers or machinery, both on our way there and on our way back. Nothing is more frustrating to drivers and taxpayers than to see these long stretches of road with no one working on them, especially when the weather was so perfect.
We were almost through Albuquerque before we accidentally spotted a Love’s fuel station which also had a Subway restaurant inside. Lacking any other choices, we filled up with gas there, and got sandwiches. That stretch of road produced our lowest gas mileage of the entire week, probably due to the climbs in elevation and the almost constant road construction through New Mexico. We got just 24.14 mpg from Amarillo to Albuquerque (which should probably be spelled “Albakerky”).
Marline returned to the driver’s seat there.
By 5:21 p.m. (MDT) we crossed the border into Arizona, where we had to change our clocks yet again, because Arizona’s government is intelligent enough to not use Daylight Saving Time. So, at 4:21 p.m. Arizona Time, we pulled into the state-run Rest Area, picking up a few maps and brochures. Because the setting sun was in her eyes, Marline asked me to finish the rest of the trip.
I got us to Flagstaff, Ariz., and found our hotel at 7:18 p.m. Arizona Time, which is the same as Pacific Daylight Time during this section of the year. Confusing, I know, but that’s the way it is.
Our entire trip from home to hotel took 13 hours and 45 minutes, and covered 910 miles.
We checked into our hotel then, the “America’s Best Value Inn,” one of two in that city. Ours was apparently the worst — at least I hope the other one was better. We recommend NOT using this hotel.
A Note on America’s Best Value Inn (Flagstaff, Ariz.)
Oddly enough, we paid the full amount for our stay up-front, though all of our other hotel stays in the past haven’t required payment until check-out. Also, the amount we paid was $17 more than the website had promised ($3.40 more per day). That was a little upsetting.
Also, the hotel chain’s website — which we’d used to reserve the room two weeks in advance — had promised that high-speed internet was included with our room rental. It was not. When I asked about it, the desk clerk said it was $5 per day to use the internet, and said, “You must have been looking at the website for the other hotel we have here in town.” I didn’t feel like arguing, but when we returned home, I went back to the website and made sure. It still says internet is included with each room.
The website also promised “complimentary continental breakfast,” which Marline was anticipating, but instead only had a coffee pot in the lobby.
It was also the smallest (bar none) hotel room I’ve ever been inside, with just enough room to walk around the bed. It was smaller than the small staterooms on cruise ships. There was only one available electrical outlet, which we had to use to recharge the laptop, camera batteries, and video camera, taking turns. It was the first hotel room I’d ever stayed in that didn’t have an alarm clock (maybe because of the lack of outlets?)
On the plus side, it was clean, had 40-something television channels, and had a brand new massage-style shower head.
After getting some our things into the hotel room, we went to the local Wal-Mart (not a SuperCenter) and bought bath towels to use in place of the thin and old towels in our hotel room. We also drove over to the I-HOP and had supper.
While in the store, we noticed that milk prices were $1.97 per gallon, about half of the price we pay every day in Seminole. But gas was $2.19 per gallon, which is significantly more than it is back home. (Throughout the week, we almost never saw gas below $2 per gallon, and in fact saw it selling for as much as $2.45 per gallon).
While driving around in the darkness, Marline and I noticed that there were hardly any streetlights in the city, and even the parking lot lights at Wal-Mart were strangely dim and yellow. Business establishments didn’t have the bright exterior signs that we’re used to, and their windows were all tinted. This all left the night sky very visible, but made it very difficult to drive — because you can’t read street signs in the dark and it was hard to even see the driveways for businesses.
I surmised that it was because of the Lowell Observatory which sits in the hills above Flagstaff, and the waitress in I-HOP confirmed this when Marline asked her.
According to a story in the Arizon Daily Sun, Flagstaff has been a “dark city” for 51 years now. On April 15, 1958, the city began regulating “light pollution,” the first city to do so. Flagstaff has banned searchlights, required all lights to point downward, and prohibited “mercury vapor lights.” And, in 1989, the city restricted light to a specific number of lumens per acre. Find more information at www.flagstaffdarkskies.org.
Despite our disappointment in the hotel room, we got a good night’s sleep, and prepared to head out to the Grand Canyon on Monday.
First thing on Monday, we headed west on I-40 and turned north at Williams, on State Hwy 64, toward the Grand Canyon. We made the mistake of filling up with gas on that road for $2.39 per gallon, thinking that it would only get higher as we got closer. We were wrong. So, that was the most expensive fillup of the week.
We also made the mistake of eating at the McDonald’s in Tusayan, a small town just before you get to the Grand Canyon. Everything in that town was pretty outrageously priced. For future visitors to the Grand Canyon, we recommend eating in Flagstaff or Williams before driving up, or bringing your own food to eat a picnic lunch at the Canyon.
The Grand Canyon itself is marvelous beyond words. It costs $25 per car to get in, but that’s a seven-day pass. There’s almost zero parking, so I’m very glad we went in the off-season. We parked alongside the road, with the Grand Canyon visible between the trees. It was a short walk to the edge of the massive gorge.
You can’t see it all at once — that’s impossible. The canyon is 277 miles long, and is over a mile deep in places. The other side appears hazy and dim because it’s 10 miles away. It is simply stunning. If you’ve never been, you should go.
After we had exhausted our ability to be awed, which took about three hours, we drove back to Tusayan where we ate a late lunch at Wendy’s and then viewed a 30-minute IMAX movie on the Grand Canyon. That was also pretty impressive. We shopped a little at a couple of touristy souvenir shops, and then had Frostys at Wendy’s.
Then we headed back to Flagstaff, bought some groceries at Safeway, Marline’s first time in a Safeway store. We picked up some microwaveable meals to keep in our room for the rest of the week, saving a little money. But that evening, we had supper at Burger King in Flagstaff.
Again, we had a good night’s sleep, preparing for even more driving on Tuesday.
Monument Valley and Four Corners
(Monument Valley pics by Wil — 54 photos)
( Four Corners pics by Wil — 8 photos)
Marline had already added two states to her “I’ve been there” list, just by going to Flagstaff. It was her first time in New Mexico and her first time in Arizona. But on Tuesday, she added two more states: Utah and Colorado. (It was my first time in Utah as well.)
We filled up with gas in Flagstaff this time, but only needed 4.76 gallons (we’d gotten 31.05 mpg the day before!) Then Marline drove us out of town to the northeast, taking US 89 north for a ways, and the US 160 east through Tuba City to Kayenta. We ate an early lunch in Kayenta and then turned north on US 163, which took us across the border into Utah.
(By the way, much of this trip was on Navajo land, which DOES observe Daylight Savings Time, but we didn’t reset our clocks for it.)
Just across the Utah line, we turned onto Monument Valley Road, which took us back into Arizona and into the Navajo-run tribal park at Monument Valley. It was $5 per person to enter the park, and then Marline turned onto the meandering dirt road that takes visitors through the historic valley.
The dirt road was rough, but no rougher than many in Seminole County, where people live, businesses operate, and public schools are located.
I took over after a couple of minutes, and drove us deeper into the park.
(If you don’t know, Monument Valley was a famous movie location for westerns by John Ford.)
The buttes were amazing to behold, and stunning when their geological history is considered. However, because people still live in the area, much of the valley is off-limits to tourists.
There are Navajo guides available for tours through the valley, but the cheapest one we found was $62.50 per person for a 90-minute tour. No thank you.
When I drove us out of the valley, we went back to Kayenta, and then took US 160 on eastward toward the corner of Arizona. We drove past Tes Nez Lah, Red Mesa (a town entirely enclosed in fences), and then turned northeast at Teec Nos Pos. Finally, we pulled into the Four Corners Monument, which sits on the border of Utah, Colorado, New Mexico, and Utah. It’s the only place in the U.S. where four states meet.
There wasn’t much there, but it only cost $3 per person to enter the grounds, and you get to touch four states at the same time. Very fun.
On the way back, in the evening, we had to get gas in Kayenta, and we learned we’d gotten 30.21 mpg on the day (in a 1991 Buick, no less).
When we returned to Flagstaff, we showered and hit the hay. Another long day awaited us.
Hoover Dam, Las Vegas, California
(Las Vegas pics by Wil — 26 photos)
( California pics by Wil — 7 photos)
After fueling up first thing in the morning, Marline drove west on I-40, all the way to Kingman, where we stopped and got breakfast on the go. Note: the drive west, from Williams to Kingman, was the most enjoyable of our trip so far, with beautiful mountain scenery on both sides of the road.
Then she drove up US 93 to the north-northwest, toward the Hoover Dam.
Traffic got backed up on the road, as every car has to pull off at a police checkpoint (where they didn’t check anything), and then the road continues down a curvy, treacherous stretch at very low speeds.
But we eventually made it to the dam, expecting to pay $7 per parking, as the website had said. Instead, we found a lot where there was no charge, and walked a little further to the dam.
This was another massive sight, but the first man-made one we’d seen so far. No, it’s not as impressive as what Nature/God did in the Grand Canyon, but it’s pretty impressive. The dam is a quarter-mile long and 726 feet high (like a 70-story building).
It cost nothing to walk across the dam and take pictures, so we did, but it cost $8 apiece to enter the visitor’s center, so we didn’t.
We walked back to the car and I took over, heading westward across the dam. On the other side, the road quickly straightened out and took us to Las Vegas. Both sides of the highway are completely developed with houses and business, almost all the way from the dam to Vegas proper, so we didn’t really get to see the desert. You’d have to come in from another direction to see that Las Vegas is surrounded almost entirely by arid, forbidding land.
We found parking for $3 in downtown Vegas (in Boston last year, it was $30!) and started walking the city. We didn’t have a lot of time to spend there, but we saw some of the major hotels and casinos along the strip, bought a T-shirt for Marline at the Coca-Cola store, and ate at McDonald’s.
Instead of heading back the way we came, we decided to go south, so Marline could add California to her list of visited states. We took US 95 south, crossed into California and on to Needles. From there, we continued south on US 95 to Blythe, Calif., where my cousin Larry lives.
Larry and his wife Michelle moved to Blythe about a week ago. We remembered this while at the Hoover Dam, and realized how close we’d be, so we called ahead and set up a dinner appointment.
Marline called several times on our way down, getting directions, etc., and we pulled into Blythe at about 7 p.m., California time (which is the same as Arizona time, now). After seeing Larry and Michelle’s house (very nice), we followed them to a small Mexican restaurant in Blythe, and had dinner with them.
Declining an offer to stay the night, we headed back toward Flagstaff.
I drove to Quartzide, Ariz., on I-10, where we fueled. I realized later that this was the first time we’d gotten gas since leaving Flagstaff that morning. We had driven 482.5 miles on one tank of gas, getting 30.57 mpg on the day!
I continued on until we’d passed through Phoenix and joined I-17 for the drive north. I was completely bushed, so we switched drivers at a convenience store, and Marline took us “home” to Flagstaff.
Note on Phoenix:
Phoenix appears to be a large, thriving, beautiful city. The roads were smooth and well-signed, and we had no problems finding our way through.
One odd thing we noticed: about half the drivers on the interstate kept their high-beams turned on, regardless of on-coming traffic or people driving in front of them. Maybe the laws on high-beams are different there? Also, almost none of the drivers there used turn signals, at any time. Not to change lanes, exit, or at traffic lights.
After the previous four days of heavy driving and playing tourist, Marline and I took it easy on Thursday. We slept late, ate breakfast at I-HOP, and then drove around town.
We went to Barnes & Nobles, which was a block from our hotel, and bought a couple of books. Then we went to the Flagstaff mall, which we realized was tiny and useless, so we left and went to “The Marketplace,” where there were quite a few nice stores hidden away. (I later learned that both the Mall and the Marketplace are run by the same company).
We shopped in Marshall’s, Best Buy, and World Market, picking up a little something in each place.
We bought a few items and then headed next door to Albertsons, which was Marline’s first time in one of their stores (I worked at an Albertsons in San Antonio for a few years).
Marline liked both stores — large, clean, and with plenty of selection (it’s that selection thing that frustrates her in Seminole).
We had Frostys at Wendy’s to close out the afternoon, and then returned to the hotel early, to rest. Marline napped through the evening, while I watched The History Channel, seeing the show “Modern Marvels,” which was pretty cool.
On Friday morning, we filled up once more, and learned we’d only gotten 24.6 mpg on our last tank, probably due to all the driving around town.
We left Flagstaff at 8:30 a.m. Arizona Time (10:30 a.m. CDT) with Marline driving and didn’t stop for almost three hours. After that bathroom stop, Marline drove on to Edgewood, N.M., where we got gas (31.03 mpg!) and picked up lunch to go. That was about 3:30 p.m. CDT (we’d already set our clocks to Oklahoma’s time zone).
I drove the next three and a half hours, to Amarillo (6:55 p.m.), where we got gas again (29.13 mpg) and Marline took over, driving to Elk City, Okla., which we reached at 9:11 p.m. We ate a late supper there, and I took over to finish our trip, getting home at 11:48 p.m.
So our trip out to Flagstaff took 13 hours and 45 minutes. Our trip back was faster, at 13 hours and 18 minutes.
We drove 3,299.8 miles, and used 117.7 gallons of gas, which cost $236.28. Our average miles-per-gallon for the trip was 28.03, and we averaged 13.97 miles per dollar (more important than mpg in my book).
I hope to have the photos posted within the next couple of days!