Despite my fears of the novel pandemic, an inner urging provoked me to begin looking at my trusty road map and not so trusted weather maps. Winter was finally about to descend on the midwest in the final week of January, so I came up with a tentative plan and prepared my SUV by changing oil and buying a pair of new tires.
When the time seemed prime for an escape to sunnier climates, I packed my duffle and stocked the cooler and said adios to my children who told me: “Go …..Go”.
So onward went I.
My original thought was to head due south from Chicago and get somewhere warm fast. But rain showed up on the weather radar from Louisiana to Alabama, and thus the steering wheel of my SUV bore slightly right and headed off “south by southwest” in the general direction of Austin, Texas. The artificial weatherman showed a sunnier climate in The Lone Star State, and so began a five week quest to stay under the rays of our own, local star, The Sun.
Hot Springs, AK.
For my first night on the road, I knew of a relatively inexpensive hotel in Hot Springs with a fine little restaurant next door to it named Rocky’s Corner. I had eaten there two years before and their house salad dressing was so flavorful that I even bought some to bring home with me. I longed to taste it again.
I arrived at the hotel, Best Western Winners Circle, right around dinner time and checked in. The hotel raises their prices when the thoroughbreds are running stakes races across the street at Oaklawn Park; but they accommodate between busy weekends and have very attractive pricing. They throw in a really good full-cooked breakfast every morning, so staying there is well worth the price.
Rocky’s was only half full of people, because of the covid restrictions. This provided an opportunity to talk with the restaurant manager, a young man named Danny. He even sat with me at my table after I told him I was a travel writer. We talked about his exploits in hunting and fishing, and mine of traveling.
I had ordered the Italian beef and, of course, the salad. I remarked how I had never tasted such a good beef outside of the city of Chicago. He said, to my laughing surprise, that the owners of Rocky’s were originally from Chicago.
That explained things a lot !!!
At some point during our conversation, an empathy came over me about how profoundly our restaurant workers have been negatively affected by the pandemic and the closure of America’s fabulous restaurants. Even my favorite neighborhood restaurant, The Norwood, had been closed for many months. I knew personally of their struggle to stay viable. This is a place you go to out of dedication to your community, a place where the pancakes are so good you don’t need syrup!
So, my story is dedicated to the quaint places dotted along the vast American landscape, and to the humble people who serve us in the field of hospitality.
As America reopens herself, I hope the hungry traveler finds the means to go to these places when visiting the area, or to the places of their own heart, to support them and help them recover.
Corpus Christi, TX.
McGee Beach, Corpus Christi
After making it as far as the welcome center at Texarkana the next morning, I once again decided to glance at my cell phone’s weather app. Though Austin looked favorable to me with partly sunny skies and low 60 degree temps for the next few days, Corpus Christi promised full sun and 70s.
The ranger at the Center gave me a helpful map of Texas and drew an even better route to Austin than taking the interstates. I-30 to I-35 would be very congested, he warned. So he drew a Sharpie-yellow line on the road map following US 59 to Texas 43 to US 79. When I got as far as Rockdale, I could then decide to bed down there, head to Austin, or continue south on US 77 to Corpus. This path avoided Dallas and Houston and gave me an opportunity to experience deep, rural Texas.
By the time I had made it to Rockdale that night, the Path to the Sun seemed best for me, so I veered south on 77 and off I was to the Gulf of Mexico.
I had not been in the area since an ancient road trip my wife and I took nearly 40 years before. I chose to stay at a hotel situated on McGee Beach, the city’s only one. This was The Emerald Beach Hotel. The property, though it gave the feeling of being beyond its prime, was right in the middle of two strands that ran along the Gulf Shore. There was a two mile walkway to the north, where the US Lexington is moored. And a similar mile and a half walkway to the south goes through Cole Park. Both strands were active with walkers and joggers, basketballers and yoga practitioners. I used this environment to my advantage, stealing rays of sunshine while going for long walks or short runs each day I was there.
Terry and Frank at Wednesday County Farmer's Market
Adriana of Landry's Seafood House
There is a place in southern Texas that begs to be experienced by the native soul: the wind and the sand of Padre Island.
After my body felt fully rejuvenated by a three night’s rest in Corpus Christi, it needed a more adventurous exploit. Knowing thyself, I had stowed a backpack full of camping gear into my SUV before leaving home. I drove down to Mustang Island State Park and set up camp on the wild, white sands which stretch about two miles along the Gulf of Mexico.
The primitive aspect of the beach is what it makes it so alluring. There was a sign at the road’s end where you turn on to Mustang Beach that listed only 2 rules: Enjoy Our Beaches and Clean Up After Yourself….
Eventually I did make my way to Austin, as the weather there remained fair. I had been to this town before, and knew of its culinary satisfactions.
Most of the shops and many of the restaurants were closed. The iconic 6th Street, or “Dirty 6th”, had a few bars open, but the music emanating from them didn’t sound very professional. Perhaps it was because it was a weeknight. There were also a lot of homeless people panhandling and not wearing masks, so I felt more comfortable moving on.
I did stop in at Cooper’s, on Congress Street, for a piece of their famous brisket and sides of baked green beans, blueberry cobbler, and slaw; but I didn’t get the chance to interview their staff. However the cook, who in my mind is a brisket genius, gladly posed for a quick pic.
brisket, beans, and blueberry cobbler
In the morning I went to another restaurant I like in East Austin called “Juan In A Million”. Their breakfast burritos are widely popular. There the waitress was a little bit too busy to talk, and too shy for a picture, so I just sat back and enjoyed the colorful decor.namesake
It is an interesting diner with airy rooms, bright decor, and an active atmosphere. The breakfast tacos are definitely worth a visit!
Onward I roamed. Hill Country, west of Austin, is scenic and dotted with a few state parks. I made a stop for my daily excursion of a hike in Pedernales Falls and was impressed by the eroded rock holes carved in the limestone and filled with the cyan waters from when the falls run full.
And after a few more hours on US 290, I stopped for dinner in the singular town of Fredericksburg. Just looking at it, after driving through the arid countryside preceding it, you can see the residents have kept up traditional German values over the decades. It is a colorful town shaded by bald cypress and burr oak. She is known for her wine vineyards and seasonal music festivals which make it a place I would like to revisit.
But this night I needed a good dinner. An unusually flower-clad steakhouse caught my eye and I could not pass it up. I did not know it at the time, but K-Bob’s is a regional chain of steakhouses serving Texas and New Mexico. Leo, the bartender, seated me and served me even though he had a full complement of local cowboys attending the bar.
Leo of K-Bob's Steakhouse
The next day I made my way past west Texas, through southern New Mexico (which had quarantine restrictions at the time if you rented a room there).
Tessa of Native Grill, Ahwatukee AZ.
After driving adjacent to a spectacular, lipstick-red sunset that night, I made my way to the crossroads town of Kingman. It is a well-lit city on Arizona’s desolate western flank. From here you can make it to Havasu City to the west, Phoenix to the south, The Grand Canyon east, and Las Vegas north --- all within a few hours.
Though exhausted by the long day’s drive, I was met at the front desk of The Best Western Plus by a lovely young lady with an invigorating spirit whose name is Cassidy. I had discovered that I left my business cards at the restaurant where I had eaten a few hours earlier, but luckily had one card left.
I asked Cassidy if she wouldn’t mind using the hotel’s scanner to make me a few copies. Being ultra-diligent, she made 10 pages of duplicates, with about 12 to a side. She took time and care to scissor them into perfect rectangles, one by one, while telling me her story.
And her story, though she is barely past her teens, was amazing. She told me that presently, she was on her 2nd shift. She had worked a full eight-hour shift, driven home to her family’s ranch 45 minutes away, only to receive a phone call that she was needed back at the hotel. The girl who had replaced her had gone home ill.
Here was somebody more tired than I, I mused! Perhaps she was fighting off fatigue by being such a precisionist with the abundance of copied business cards. But I was glad for it, because she then related other fragments of her history.
Not only was she born and raised on a ranch, but she had been a whizz in high school. She graduated earlier than the rest of her class and then had gone on to find a program to take her prerequisites to attend nursing school. This prereq school was in Viet Nam, so she studied there for a few months taking in the culture and picturesque beauty. Her heart was thus seeded to want to be able to travel the world one day.
Finally, after squaring off the paper business cards in her hands and presenting them to me, she said how grateful she was to have her job….she was pleased that they had asked her back in to work that 2nd shift.
Cassidy's hospitality on US 66
I am always surprised by the charming people the traveler meets when in need of assistance.
LAS VEGAS, NV.
taming the Colorado at Hoover Dam
One of my favorite camps in North America is at Texas Springs in Death Valley National Park. The morning after lodging in Kingman, my automobile quite logically steered itself in that direction. I have been blessed in my life in many ways, but one of the most treasured is that I am Godfather to three amazing young men. One of these, Colin, presently lives in Las Vegas. So I would stop there on the way to the alluring depths of Death Valley.
Picking up on the theme of my travels, good ol’ Colin brought me to his friend’s brand new business venture, a cool looking birrieria truck in East Las Vegas at 1930 E. Charleston Blvd: “El Patron”.
Street food has found a solid place in American culture and the young owner, Nahum Salgado, is tapping his enterprising nature into this form of
savory art. His nature is sweet, and unassuming, bubbling with the energy of an entrepreneur. He actually used the downtime the pandemic provided to plan his venture and to lay the groundwork required.
And his family-made, dipped red tacos of “El Patron” were spectacular.
Death Valley National Park
I set up camp in Death Valley for the following night, but not before hiking and scrambling up the slopes of Artist’s Palate. The next morning, I took a hard and bumpy ride on West Side Road to view the valley from the pioneer’s perspective from the far side of Badwater Basin. I then headed out the western exit, past Stovepipe Wells. 190-West is a most exhilarating drive, from one deep mountain valley to the next. There is a parking lot at Father Crowley’s Vista Point where you can view Rainbow Canyon diving into Panamint Valley. On occasion, F-35 fighter jets boom through this narrow gage on training sortees, alarming the tourists and picture-takers on the point.
the dive into Panamint Valley
Rainbow Canyon from Father Crowley's Point
The scenery becomes even more wondrous the further west you travel, for the mighty Sierras come into view a few miles further on. There is not a lot of traffic in the winter either, so pulling over for landscape photography is certainly a plausibility. In fact, this path west is like a clandestine jewel if one is adventurous enough to seek it.
After a full day’s drive under the span of the stalwart Sierra, I eventually found myself in the quiet village of Arcadia.
I Love this little city. It is close enough to L.A. that you can get there in less than an hour, but it is still slightly out of the chaos zone. The L.A. County Arboretum is situated in Arcadia as well as Santa Anita Racetrack. The pandemic had closed down both. But some of the quaint restaurants were open to twenty-five percent capacity. Others, unfortunately, were closed down for good.
During the days I walked to Arcadia County Park. There were ladies pushing strollers under the contrasting species of trees, ficus and palms. Yoga classes seemed to pop up randomly here and there. Accomplished tennis doubles mesmerized casual observers. Chinese “plaza” dancers strutted under sun-umbrellas, pirouetting slowly while positioning their hands like pinyan Buddhas.
All the while, the sun shone and warmed my shoulders while the drift of Mediterranean air reached this far inland from the ocean.
There is an exemplary delicatessen kiddy-corner from the park named Claro’s Italian Markets. It has been here for ages, mainly because of its excellence in foods. It is mainly an Italian deli, though they boast Greek, French, and Argentine influences as well.
Carmen behind plexiglass at Claro's Italian Market
I was a little perturbed on my first visit, because the people before me in line at the meat counter seemed to be stocking up for an entire month. But I knew I would regret it if I simply left never to come back. If patience is a virtue, then its reward that Sunday was the Eggplant Parmesan hiding in an adjacent, heated deli-glass-counter. Probably the best I have ever tasted.
I also purchased several bottled goods to bring home as gifts, a few chocolate laced sweets, and a ½ pound of genoa salami which provisioned me the following ten days on the road.
I drove to the coast while in the vicinity and harbored myself one day at The Reel Inn of Malibu. They are a hip little fish joint on The Pacific Coast Highway, playfully decorated in sea-themed paraphernalia; but their fare is serious seafood.
Jesus and Brooke of The Reel Inn
The indoor picnic tables were shut down, but fortunately the sea winds were soft enough, and the skies sunny enough, to dine on the tables outside.
During my arduous drive to Southern California from the mountains ranging above Lone Pine, I recalled the video that had gone viral on youtube a few weeks before of the poor lady whose grill faced prolonged closure because of governmental mismanagement. To me, her impassioned video was the epitome of what restaurateurs had had to go through while dealing with the shortsightedness and indifference of the hand of government. Wouldn’t it be my personal coup d’etat if I could interview her for my story? It was HER story, afterall, which had affected me so much.
Not remembering her exact name or precise location meant some simple research at my hotel on my laptop. Her name was Angela Marsden of Pineapple Hill Saloon and Grill. Again I watched her video and again was similarly touched by her authenticity and desperation.
I called and found out her establishment fortuitously was reopened. Hastily did I drive there. Sherman Oaks was only a half hour away and this, I felt, would be my attempt to be of assistance.
I introduced myself to Angela upon my arrival, and though she was extremely busy that day (and perhaps a wee bit overwhelmed by the reopening), she was gracious enough to answer a few questions and to say she would be delighted if I wrote about her.
You can tell by her presence that she is a humble person. She is of mid-western roots having grown up in the rust-belt city of Fort Wayne, Indiana. She has kind eyes, but as I said, the day I plummeted in unannounced, they were tired eyes. I knew she had recently gone through a lot.
Not feeling up for a picture to add to my story, she demurred and said that her staff would be happy to fill her shoes in that regard.
Her restaurant manager, Lindsay was more than helpful. And she recommended, as I do now, the Old Bay Wings. “Old Bay” is an Maryland crab rub that their cook, Miguel, has transitioned into a sauce. Its lemony flavor is quite appealing.
Lindsay and Sunni of Pineapple Hill
NORTH PHOENIX, AZ.
Once I realized the skies of the Coast were about to be shaded by a glaze of fog, I skedaddled to where the Sun remains ablaze most every day. In fact, Phoenix and its environs are widely known as The Valley Of The Sun.
It was here that I reunited with a grammar school-era friend and was taken into her hospitality for three conversation-laden days. We talked well into the night about ancient days and the forgotten traits of our youth.
Suzan is a fabulous interior designer, besides being a new grandmother to a wee lad named Wyatt.
During this time, and upon her advice, I visited the artistic community of Cave Creek. There is a notable gallery there named Rare Earth. Somewhat akin to the galleries of Scottsdale, Rare Earth had more outdoor space to work with, so therefore was large and breezy and held so many artifacts that it seemed as much a museum as a gallery.
Stefi Ho was the young lady who assisted me in picking out pieces of petrified wood they collect, under permit, outside the boundaries of Petrified Forest National Park. Though my budget and the size of my automobile dictated the size of my colorful chunks of 180 million year old wood, the gallery boasts dozens of pieces the size of boulders on their lot
The whole town of Cave Creek was shut down for a month in the early stages of the pandemic, but because of the diligence of the shop and restaurant owners, plus the foresight of the local government, the amount of time compared to other places was not obtrusive.
To this day the shops remain diligent. In fact, the splashy colors of the gemstones at Rare Earth seem to dazzle all the brighter for the daily disinfecting the staff performs.
There are several hikes in and around Cave Creek, so between walking by the singular restaurants and storefronts and heading out and back from one of the trailheads, I got plenty of exercise that day.
I had lunch at the Grotto Cafe which features soups, sandwiches, and tacos. The walls inside are adorned with posters and music labels, while the outdoor patio is shaded by palo verde and where they sometimes provide live music.
outdoor patio, The Grotto Cafe
On my last night in North Phoenix, Suzan brought me to Twist Bistro and Gallery, a local restaurant which she had personally designed for the new owner. On our arrival, we were seated, and I confidently pointed out to our server, a beautiful young woman named Lisa, just who Suzan was.
Suzan McDonald at her artistic creation
Taking my facetious attitude of importance in stride, Lisa graciously showed genuine interest in my friend’s contribution to her place of employment. She looked at the pictures Suzan had stored on her cell phone of the restaurant’s transformation and asked questions.
Lisa of Twist Bistro and Gallery