Or: Santa Fe to Boca Raton in five easy months, plus three days...
...wherein, being no longer young yet still possibly foolish, we ignore the advice of Horace Greeley and head toward the morning sun.
The first phase, which occurred in mid-April, involved selling our Santa Fe house and moving to a rental in Los Alamos (about 35 miles northwest) for the summer. Although that cut the commuting time by about a factor of ten, it decreased the restaurant possibilities by far more than that. After five months of making the rounds among the same four places, we're more than ready for phase two. We spend a week packing most of our stuff and have the experts do the kitchen and various delicate things. Then, on Monday, the loading crew comes with the big truck.
Day Zero: Los Alamos to Taos (63 mi)
Having flexible plans is the key to peace of mind, we find. The loading crew finally arrives at about 10:30, and, as the true professionals they are, do a great job of pacing themselves during the loading process. Our driveway in Los Alamos doesn't lend itself to a highway truck, so they have a secondary truck to load stuff into, and the transfer into the eighteen-wheeler adds about three extra hours to the process. So, instead of hitting the road in mid-afternoon (and making it almost out of New Mexico before Day One), we're signing the last of the paperwork at 6:30 that evening.
Plan A was to have an early supper in Santa Fe, at one of our old favorites, and then head for points east—we were going to try for Clayton, NM, nearly into Texas. But that's four hours plus the meal, and we're exhausted from watching those guys work all day. So Plan B is quickly formulated.
Taos makes the perfect alternative—for our last night in NM, there's really nowhere else that compares. We put the top down on the roadster and head north along the river road, get to the venerable Sagebrush Inn on the south side of town about eight, have dinner, and settle in. We spent a long Thanksgiving Weekend here a couple of years ago, in a big room with a fireplace, and it feels familiar despite its need for some updates. The Sagebrush is one of those places that's reasonably priced and therefore somewhat touristy—the truly genteel places in Taos are just too much, in terms of both money and unnecessary amenities, for an overnight before a big road trip.
Besides, starting from Taos sends us over the Sangre de Cristos through Eagle Nest (It will be all downhill from there!) first thing in the morning, the last real mountains (and aspen) for a long, long time.
We just wish we'd opted for a second-floor room. The building is old, and the ceiling, a beautiful tongue-and-groove supported by eight-inch beams called vigas in these parts, is also floor upstairs. It squeaks and thumps under the weight of the herd of bison they rented the room up there to.
Day One: Taos to Independence, KS (635 mi)
Even though the elevation is a little lower here than in Santa Fe or Los Alamos, it's 36° degrees this morning—the first sub-50° temperatures we've experienced this season and a taste of autumn. But we grit our teeth and put down the top for the ride up the hill to Eagle Nest; by then it's after breakfast and no doubt a little warmer. With the heater warming our toes, though, it's tolerable.
And worth it: Taos Canyon up, across the Eagle Nest highlands—it looks as if it could be a volcanic caldera, but we're not sure—and then Cimarron Canyon down, through the famous Philmont Boy Scout Ranch. You get extra points for Boy Scouts, if you hit one, more than for little old ladies, but we don't see any.
Then it's a day on the plains—the High Plains of eastern New Mexico; the Great Plains of the Oklahoma Panhandle and western Kansas, the regular Plains of central Kansas, and then the plain old farmland in eastern Kansas. We make good time because we manage to forego visits to any of the attractions and curiosities along the way. It's a good start: from the high point of over 8000' in Eagle Nest, we're below 800' in Independence, in the middle of a thunderstorm. By then it's dark, the top's up (it went up at the first raindrop), and we're ready to call it a day.
Day Two: Independence to Murfreesboro, TN (730 mi)
Wednesday morning is gloomy and misting, and we leave the top up to Springfield, MO, where the sun is beginning to peek through. East of Springfield, we follow US 60 across the base of Missouri and find it to be a marvelous road despite its puny appearance on the map. The first and last thirds are four lanes, sort of access controlled, and the middle third, over the crest of the Ozarks (if you want to call that a "crest"), a lovely stretch of hills and forests full of places with names like Uncle Rooster's Hillbilly Haven, is two lanes with wide shoulders and extra truck lanes up the bigger hills. We don't quite manage interstate speeds, but close.
At the eastern side of Missouri, US 60 crosses the Mississippi, touches down in Cairo, Illinois for a hundred yards or two, and then crosses the Ohio, providing views of the confluence both times, muddy water mixing with muddier, like cocoa in coffee. As I grew up in Illinois, I can claim to have set foot "home", or something close.
Then it's up to Paducah, Kentucky and, on I-24, south to Nashville and then Murfreesboro (in traffic from Hell), making this a five-state day. It's shortly after Paducah that the ubiquitous roadside signs of the south begin to appear, exhorting us to See Rock City! We decide not to, but the familiarity of those signs on birdhouses, barn roofs, billboards, and just about everywhere else is reassuring. We stop early enough to eat dinner and relax a little—the next section of I-24, through Chattanooga to Atlanta, is the prettiest part, and we want to do it in daylight.
Day Three: Murfreesboro to Boca Raton (835 mi.)
Like the old horse who smells the barn, we make a determined push to get this trip over with. It helps that two-thirds of the day are on interstates (24/75/95), with the middle third down US 23 through the heart of Georgia pine country and then swamps. And it also helps that we don't hit rush hour anywhere, except for a little of it around the by-pass of Jacksonville. (We drive straight through Atlanta around noon, but it's smooth sailing. Must be that during the rush hours, though, it's gridlocked.)
As we hoped, the first section, southeast of Murfreesboro, is beautiful in the morning light and mist. There and through much of Georgia, the highways seem like green tunnels with the sky for a roof, something that you just don't see much of in the arid west. And later, ripping down I-95 along the east coast of Florida under a nearly full moon who's weaving in and out of clouds , we realize that we've arrived: marsh smells and a windshield splattered with bugs lend a funky reality to the warm wind in our hair and the palm trees.
As they say, "South Florida isn't just a place, it's a state of mind." And here, three days, 2200 miles, and eight states later (but two time zones earlier), we're ready to find out just what that means.