A Travellerspoint blog

May 2012

The Graaaaand Canyon

sunny 85 °F
View Roadtrop on mormolyke's travel map.

Ahh, Grand Canyon, ubiquitous entry on the itineraries of tourists of America from all corners of the globe. As you candidly admit in your visitor center information, you may not be the longest, the widest, or the deepest canyon in the world, but you might be the grandest, if only there were a way to empirically measure grandness in scientific units.

In my frenzied pre-roadtrop planning, I had of course booked us a campsite ahead of time, and as we pulled in at 11PM, we remarked at how crowded together the campsites seemed. This was explained the next day when we discovered the nearest tents were actually taking up the spot where we would have pitched a tent, had we not installed a bed in the back of our car. A trio of guys (one from West Chester, PA, of all places) had assumed we weren't taking our campsite, since we arrived so late, and put it to good use. No harm, no foul -- they were friendly and apologetic, and it didn't inconvenience us.

Being an idiot, as I was talking to them, I let the milk I was heating for my morning chai boil over. Something about the high altitude, perhaps, made it behave rather differently than milk normally does when overheated: it shot in a perfect cylindrical stream, as though from a garden hose, from the kettle's spout, right onto my arm. It didn't seem to hurt at first, but after the guys cleared out, I realized my arm was actually scalded pretty badly. Application of cold water and first while chanting the mantra "Stop whingeing; I am a trooper," did the trick, and it stopped hurting, though the burn looked like a huge port wine mark. (Now it looks like peeling zombie skin.)

And of course, seeing the canyon from the ground for the first time made both of us forget everything else in our heads. Writing this a few days later, I can say that as we have traveled, seeing gorgeous and unique landscapes wherever we go, we've become a little bit immune to all of the beauty, but we have still run into sights that have made our jaws drop, and the canyon was one of them, despite all the pictures we've seen.


In my last entry, I talked about nearly hitting an elk on the way into the park late at night. Once camped, we were to discover that our space was shared with a herd of elk and unkindnesses of ravens - in fact, the Grand Canyon has given us our closest encounters with wildlife on the roadtrop so far. It is surreal to be walking through the campground, round a corner, and find your way nearly blocked by a creature the size of a van, eating a tree. Elk are so huge, I can't imagine anything preying on them besides packs of wolves, which don't exist in that area, and fast cars on dark country roads. They looked at us puny humans with what can only be described as complete indifference, or perhaps dismissive contempt, as we inched our way around them a mere five feet away, frantically taking photographs.


In the next 40 hours or so, Matt and I did some walking on the Rim Trail, built a campfire to roast marshmallows, and finally hiked 1.5 miles into the canyon (and back out again) on the Bright Angel Trail. Hiking into the canyon was easy, but the climb out was pretty killer.

FLICKR SET: Roadtrop: Grand Canyon

Neither of us was really prepared for how much high altitude affects breathing and exertion, but the worst of it was probably the fast-rising sun, which achieved an uncomfortable blaze by 9:30AM, making the most difficult part of the hike a race for shade as well as a climb.

We had no idea how relatively easy that hike was. We were to learn our lesson a few days later in Yosemite.

Posted by mormolyke 22:59 Archived in USA Tagged grand_canyon arizona Comments (0)

Thank you for your functional wifi, Motel 6

New photos uploaded

sunny 70 °F
View Roadtrop on mormolyke's travel map.

I am three national parks behind in my blogging, but if you want a sneak peek, I finally managed to get the photos up at the usual address (http://pix.roadtrop.com):


We're currently in the middle of nowhere, Nevada, about to cross into Idaho. We were supposed to camp last night at a state park, but if you take a look through the latest pictures, you'll see the massive hike we took two days ago that totally kicked our arses and turned us into stiff-limbed zombies who require piping hot muscle-relaxing showers and beds. Tonight: Yellowstone!

Posted by mormolyke 05:57 Archived in USA Comments (0)

Utah, Arizona

Once again, insert my usual excuses about not blogging often enough.

View Roadtrop on mormolyke's travel map.

When I left off, we were watching solar eclipse. After the annularity, we jumped back in the car for a longish night drive all the way up to Goosenecks State Park in southern Utah. It was yet another campsite of convenient location, which had the added advantages of being open 24 hours and costing nothing. On the way up, via a long, straight, unlit country road through a night that was thick pitch black except for the reflected glow of the 70mph speed limit signs, I had the roadtrop's first dangerous encounter with large animals when I narrowly escaped plowing my car into some horses.

Yeah. Horses. Free-range horses. Crossing the road close to midnight on a moonless night.


Above is a free-range horse we passed the next day that looks similar to one of the horses that nearly totaled our car in the dark.

Goosenecks State Park was likewise very dark when we pulled in, and we couldn't make out any scenery at all, but for the outline of a few RV's parked nearby. Matt had read something about the park being perched on a sheer cliff, so I drove extremely slowly, and imagined scenarios whereby I accidentally hit the accelerator instead of the brake and sent us shooting over the edge like a reluctant Thelma and Louise.

This is what we woke up to when Monday dawned:

FLICKR SET: Roadtrop: Goosenecks State Park

OK, Goosenecks State Park. That was pretty awesome. And a good warm up to our subsequent drive through Monument Valley.

FLICKR SET: Roadtrop: Monument Valley

Unfortunately, by the time we realized we had missed the turn for East Mitten Butte, we were in Arizona, d'oh. I guess we'll have to come back someday.

A couple of years ago, we made a rather spontaneous trip to Phoenix and Sedona, so we had seen some of Arizona's landscape before. The first thing we wanted to check out this time was Meteor Crater, which we ran out of time to visit in 2009. It's an eye-popping hole in the ground that makes you realize we're all doomed to destruction from outer space. I do find it a little disconcerting that the site is privately owned, because as far as I'm concerned, something this significant should be public land.

FLICKR SET: Roadtrop: Meteor Crater

We also whipped down south for a look-see of Montezuma Castle and a speed run through Sedona, and finished off the day with a continuation of the space theme that's run through much of the roadtrop: a stop at the famous Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, which is open at night for telescope observation. On Monday night, the telescopes were pointed at a star cluster (damnit, I can't remember the name. M5? Something like that.) and Saturn. A couple of nights previously, Matt actually found Saturn through our wee Orion SkyScanner, and we could clearly make out the ring, but of course, the 32-foot-long two-foot aperture telescope did a better job, go figure. Saturn wasn't much bigger than it was in our telescope, but the resolution was such that we could differentiate a couple of bands.

FLICKR SET: Roadtrop: Montezuma Castle & Sedona

Monday night was a repeat of Sunday night: a long lonely drive on dark country roads, but this time our destination was the Grand Canyon, and the large animal I nearly hit as it crossed the road was an elk.



More about our Grand Canyon adventures, including additional elk encounters, in the next entry.

Posted by mormolyke 07:30 Archived in USA Tagged arizona utah sedona elk monument_valley flagstaff montezuma_castle lowell meteor_crater goosenecks Comments (0)

Who says you can't relive your youth?

Revisiting New Orleans

sunny 80 °F

I've been meaning to write an addition to this log for the past few days, but a combination of amazing scenery and a dearth of respectable network connections has foiled even the very thought of contributing to roadtrop.com - but now, Melissa is driving from Flagstaff to the Grand Canyon -- at night -- so I'm going to make the most of what I have and catch up on my thoughts on the trip.

We are going through so many things that if I fail to write them all down, I fear I will forget the details. I don't even really remember the last thing I wrote on this site, so I'll start at New Orleans.

My first trip to NOLA was on April 1st, 1999, for a somewhat life-changing interview for a job I didn't end up getting. I didn't see much of the city - just what I could see out the windows in a drive from the airport to the garden district. The following year, I spent an extended weekend in the city with online friends - the main premise was to see Nine Inch Nails in concert, but we also wanted to explore the city, and catch The The at the House of Blues. It was such a good time that a few of us decided to do it again the following year. This time, we rented out a house on Borboun Street, and basically lived in New Orleans for a week. "Let's do this again next year!" We were all totally into it. But I was talking to this girl in Australia who was going to be going to New York for a week, and then New Orleans for a week, and I had a new car, and I suggested maybe we drive down. The rest, as the cliche goes, is history.

I am a nostalgic person, romantic to a fault. I can't really express to you how good I felt when, ten years later, Melissa and I opened the door to the room we stayed in a decade before, and aside from the futon being replaced by a bunk bed, that room was exactly as it had been. Something about that room, and walking down streets I hadn't revisited since 2002, took me right back to that place in my heart when I fell totally in love with Melissa. Seeing equipment that sent man to the moon is cool, sleeping in the Everglades is cool, hanging around Key West was really cool, and there are great things yet to come - but if we drove straight home from New Orleans, this vacation would be wholly satisfying.

Aside from all that gushy stuff, I *finally* met Butler Ives, who I've been talking to on and off for over a dozen years. He took us to get Po Boys at Tracey's, where they serve Barq's Root Beer in bottles I'd never seen before - because as Butler told us, Barq's is from New Orleans, and somehow they work it out so that they only serve those bottles in their hometown. I wanted to take some home with me, but space is limited. It wasn't until just before Butler had to dash that we could even remember how we first got in contact. He had sent me a write-up about a party in Trent Reznor's house way back in the early days of the NIN Hotline. It's a little crazy, thinking about how long ago that was.

As much as I enjoyed reliving old memories, there are new ones waiting to be created, so after spending the night in New Orleans, we were Texas-bound. We were going to Dallas by way of Beaumont, where we camped overnight in a Walmart parking lot. Dallas was where Mel's friend Julie lived - I think Mel goes into more detail here, but in short, Julie's family knows good food, and hooked us up. In between a home cooked meal and Fuel City Tacos, we visited the spot where JFK was shot. Dealey Plaza feels like it's a different shape and size when you're there, compared to photos and videos you see all your life. Up the road, near the cabin where Dallas was founded, was a memorial to John F. Kennedy, which I had not been aware of. It's minimal, but it's respectful, it's simple and effective. You can stand in the middle of it, and it blocks your view of the city around it, although sound gets through just fine.

What followed was a long haul from Dallas to Carlsbad, New Mexico - but not before fulfilling childhood dreams of seeing petrified dinosaur footprints. Since I'm trying to compress several days of travel into a post that I can write in the two hours between Flagstaff and the Grand Canyon, I'll put it like this: Dinosaur Valley State Park is an idyllic location, and I feel like anyone who's ever animated dinosaurs has done so after having visited this place, because it looks like the setting of any dinosaur video, shy of the Jurrasic Park films. I wish we could have stayed longer, but so much to do, so little time. The next stretch was basically a sundown trip across Texas. In a nutshell: It was dark and I took most of the trip doing at least 80mph, and it still seemed to take forever.

We spent the next day at Carlsbad Caverns, a phenomenal experience. The caverns were extraordinarily expansive, and very nicely lit by the park service, but what really sold me was the natural entrance to the caverns. This gaping maw of a cave, with an installed path that seemed to descend forever, while cave swallows swoop and poop overhead, is something pictures simply will not do justice to. I couldn't get the phrase "Mines of Moria" out of my head as we kept going down further and further into the depths of the cavern. Winding through the chambers, you go from a room that has a cavernous reverb sound, to another section that is so quiet I can hear nothing but the constance of blood rushing under various freuquency bands of tinnitus I've developed over years of aural abuse. After several hours seven hundred feet below the surface, the chill was getting to us, so we took the elevator to the surface, where the sun quickly warmed us back up for our trip that evening, the goal of which was Las Cruces by way of El Paso.

That's where I've got to wrap it up for now. My next entry is likely going to be very, 'woo, cars!' as I gush about my drive down the Coronado Trail, and the drive from Sedona to Flagstaff.

Posted by leviathant 12:16 Archived in USA Comments (1)

What time is it?

Solar eclipse time!

View Roadtrop on mormolyke's travel map.

I have to get this off my damn chest.

What. Is. Up. With. Time. Zones.

Time zones: they're not rocket science, right? You'd think not. And yet, they have several times stumped two otherwise reasonably intelligent people.

Here is what I knew about US time zones before going on this trip: there are four of them, Eastern (EST), Central (CST), Mountain (MST), and Pacific (PST), and they are each an hour apart. I always figured time zones went by state. I also figured all the states on our Roadtrop Map participated in daylight savings, so the time zones we'd deal with would be EDT, CDT, MDT and PDT.

The first WTF moment involving time was on our drive from Knoxville to Nashville, both in Tennessee. When I hopped into the driver's seat in the morning and loaded up the GPS, I thought it was odd that the drive was shorter than it appeared to be in my notes. A couple of hours into it, I suddenly realized that to complete the journey by the time of arrival, I would have to drive at 140mph. Wait ... Nashville is in a different timezone to Knoxville? Yes, apparently so, even though a world clock website that Matt looked at suggested otherwise. Western Tennessee is on CDT, while the east of the state is on EDT. I guess the divide is between counties or something (not enough precious bandwidth for me to Google the answer).

The second WTF moment was yesterday, the day of the solar eclipse. At the City of Rocks visitor center in the morning, we picked up an information sheet that said the eclipse would start at 6:30PM, with annularity around 7:37PM. I had in my notes that the eclipse would take place an hour earlier, so we realized that Arizona was on PDT, not MDT. OK, that's an easy adjustment.

Then, as we were driving to Canyon de Chelly National Monument, where we wanted to view the eclipse, I noticed that, according to the GPS, we were short on time. We bypassed Petrified Forest and kind of rushed the end of the Coronado Trail to make sure we were in place to view the eclipse on time. However, at about 4:00PM PDT, I realized that something was off in the opposite temporal direction. I was driving a 60-mile-long stretch of highway at about 80mph (shh), but the GPS was telling me I needed two hours to reach the end.

Oh, good lord. Canyon de Chelly National Monument is on a Navajo nation reservation, which does not observe daylight savings. So my notes were in PDT, but our eclipse observation site, they were marking PST, which is actually the same as MDT, so in practice, the info sheet from City of Rocks was correct after all.

Shoot me in the face.

Anyhow, it all worked out for the best, because we arrived at Canyon de Chelly early, and could get set up in time to witness the start of the eclipse. Unfortunately, we couldn't get the T-adapter for my telescope working with Matt's camera (would love to Google a solution when I reach civilization i.e. decent wifi), but I got some pretty great shots by screwing basically every filter I own onto my PowerShot, and sandwiching a grade 5 welding goggle lens between my ND4 and UV filter. Then I shot at ISO 80, shutter speed 1/4000, and with the manual focus at infinity (I think the camera was having a helluva time autofocusing through all those filters). Here are some pix of the set-up:

Canyon de Chelly National Monument: Ready for the eclipse

Canyon de Chelly National Monument: Ready for the eclipse

Canyon de Chelly National Monument: Filters for my Canon Powershot, and sleeve adapter

Canyon de Chelly National Monument: Filters for my Canon Powershot, and sleeve adapter

Canyon de Chelly National Monument: 10mm, 20mm and 4mm eyepieces

Canyon de Chelly National Monument: 10mm, 20mm and 4mm eyepieces

Canyon de Chelly National Monument: 2x Barlow with T-ring adapter

Canyon de Chelly National Monument: 2x Barlow with T-ring adapter

Canyon de Chelly National Monument: Welding goggles with number 14 lenses

Canyon de Chelly National Monument: Welding goggles with number 14 lenses

Canyon de Chelly National Monument: Orion SkyScanner

Canyon de Chelly National Monument: Orion SkyScanner

And here's the eclipse itself:

FLICKR SET: Roadtrop: Solar Eclipse at Canyon de Chelly

Posted by mormolyke 10:24 Archived in USA Tagged arizona eclipse time solar canyon_de_chelly time_zones Comments (2)

Seven hundred to OVER NINE THOUSAND

Carlsbad caverns and the Coronado Trail

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Friday was a fairly light day for us, with only one major stop: the Carlsbad Caverns. Good god, am I glad it was our only stop.

For as long as I can remember, I have been susceptible to a mild variety of Stendahl syndrome that manifests usually when I visit art museums and try to see too much of them in a single visit. I can go about three hours before I space out, and if I try for much longer than four hours, I start to freak out. The worst case I can remember was the time we tried to do NYC's MoMA in one day. About 3PM, I could feel a kind of hysteria, as though I were about to throw up or have some kind of panic attack. "NOW. WE HAVE TO LEAVE NOW. EXIT. NOW." I had a splitting headache and couldn't think for the rest of the afternoon/evening.

You can probably guess where this is going. The Carlsbad Caverns are like visiting an immense underground art gallery, with the added complications that you are 700 feet below the surface, so there's no easy exit, and it's about 13 degrees Celsius. (Aside: weird thing, I still think in Celsius below 20 degrees. Above that, I now think in Fahrenheit.)

The 9AM ranger-guided tour was full, so we opted to hike all the way into the caverns (a couple of miles) via the Natural Entrance. Approaching the entrance itself, it's very easy to understand how one might believe in concepts of mthological giants and their modern-day fantasy descendants, such as Balrogs. The earth opens into an enormous gaping mouth like a grouper fish, and cave swallows (seriously, cave swallows) dart in and out from their mud nests on the cave wall. Actually, they do more than dart; they dive and defecate. Matt has the white streak on his had to prove it.

The National Park Service has installed an extensive system of trails inside the caves, all nicely paved and provided with hand rails, and they've taken the trouble to artfully light all the interesting cave features. It's easy to forget that without the lights, the cave would be utterly dark. Matt and I were amazed by how silent the cave trail could become, despite the nearby presence of far too many indifferent and loudly chattering schoolchildren, just by rounding a few corners in the limestone passageways.

I think the pictures speak louder than anything I could possibly say to describe the caves, and they don't even do the caves justice. After a couple of hours of gazing with my mouth looking like the cave entrance, I was completely wiped out and unable to process anything I was seeing, but I still took photos. My left hand was bundled into my hoodie pouch, but I remember my camera hand being painfully cold.

FLICKR SET: Roadtrop: Carlsbad Caverns

Two days later ... uh, that's yesterday ... we were up in the mountains at the highest altitude either of us have ever driven. We drove from City of Rocks State Park up through Arizona via Route 191, formerly Route 666 (truth), aka the Coronado Trail, aka the Devil's Highway. OK, when I say "we," I mean Matt did the driving, because I come from a very flat country where I grew up driving in the city, and just looking at mountains scares me, never mind driving on them. The first accident I ever had was on a winding country road.

Good news: Holy crap, views. We went from dry desert to a fascinating yet disturbing vast copper and gold strip mine to the fire-ravaged Apache National Forest, with mountain vistas all around. Also, we survived hundreds of hair-raising white-knuckle switchbacks with no guardrails. My kingdom for a guardrail. Bad news: the GoPro gremlins didn't want to cooperate with us, so we won't have a time lapse of our Coronado Trail drive, which really sucks. But we do have pictures we took with our regular cameras along the way:

FLICKR SET: Roadtrop: Coronado Trail

N.B. More photos to come! Tough time finding good internet around here ...

I think we topped out at around 9200 feet elevation, but I snapped a picture at OVER NINE THOUSAND, because internet:


Posted by mormolyke 08:36 Archived in USA Tagged arizona caves new_mexico carlsbad carlsbad_caverns coronado_trail route_191 Comments (1)


sunny 90 °F
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All right, Texas, although I am this moment crossing the Continental divide, I must go back and blog about you before the memories fade.

We covered Texas in two days, which is pretty amazing given its size. After seeing Kermit Ruffins play in New Orleans, we booked as fast as we could to crash at the Walmart in Beaumont at about 1AM. I was starving when we pulled in, so grabbed a burger at a Jack in the Box, where I could understand about one in three words the server said to me. Hello, Texas.

The next morning, we kept going on Highway I-10 into Houston to visit the Johnson Space Center, as in "Houston, we have a problem." I think the Kennedy Space Center has it over the Houston one; they also have a Saturn V, but they bus people to it like cattle in cheesy tourist trams and don't give them the tear-jerking launch movie beforehand. (I do like the fact I've seen two out of three of the Saturn V rockets in existence now. Guess I'll have to get myself to the Smithsonian later this summer. Yes, I haven't visited the Smithsonian since 1994, even though I live relatively nearby.) Houston also has some neat interactive displays, such as a walk-in model of a shuttle (Vale, Space Shuttle Program) and a flight sim for landing the shuttle (which I caned even on the most difficult level, ha!), and you get to see the actual Mission Control room used in the 1960's.

FLICKR SET: Roadtrop: Houston & Johnson Space Center

We left Houston around 3PM to get to Lancaster, just south of Dallas, in time for dinner with my friend Julie and her family. Julie was a Texan exhange student majoring in marine biology at the University of New South Wales in Sydney around 1998 and had the good (mis)fortune to live in a five-bedroom apartment whose occupants included me, Dr Yobbo and my BFF Jason. Those were some super wild and crazy times, fueled largely by disgusting amounts of alcohol, cigarettes, and drama. But Julie was an awesome flatmate, and we connected years later on Facebook (of course), so when she offered up a place to stay on the roadtrop, along with an oversized good dose of southern cooking and hospitality, I jumped at the chance.

Among the culinary offerings were chicken-fried venison, bason-wrapped venison, squashes and new potatoes fresh from the garden, freshly home-made biscuits, home-made plum jelly, fried okra (Matt usually hates okra, and even he loved it), pickled banana peppers ... it was a FEAST. I haven't eaten so well in I don't even know how long. Julie's family's house was also very impressive, and our guest room was practically palatial. And of course, her family were so lovely, we felt waited on every second.


After a good night's rest (I actually slept in, woah), Julie loaded us into an SUV and gave us a tour of downtown Dallas, including, of course, the spot where Kennedy was assassinated and the nearby grassy knoll and book depository. I've lived in America long enough, now, to understand and even tap into some of the sadness and fascination associated with JFK's murder, so it wasn't just a trivial photo op for me.

FLICKR SET: Roadtrop: Dallas

We had to leave Dallas after lunch (some of the most delicious tacos I've ever eaten from a truck stop called Fuel City) to head to Dinosaur Valley State Park (we ended up mostly bypassing nearby Dinosaur World, which looked super lame) for the heart-pounding, squee-inducing experience of treading in actual dinosaur footprints, preserved by a river for tens of millions of years.

FLICKR SET: Roadtrop: Dinosaur State Park, TX

Note to self: it is extremely difficult to stop stepping in dinosaur footprints once you start. We had to drag ourselves out of the park, knowing that we had a helluva drive ahead of us to Carlsbad, New Mexico. When it was my turn to drive, I could barely keep my eyes open, and had to wake Matt and ask him to drive the last twenty miles.

Posted by mormolyke 10:35 Archived in USA Tagged food houston texas dallas dinosaurs jfk lancaster johnson_space_center grassy_knoll dinosaur_valley Comments (0)

New Mexico: City of Rocks State Park and White Sands

sunny 85 °F
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It is so horrifically easy to not-blog while on the road, especially when every day is as packed with mind-boggling sights as the last couple have been. Let me attempt to recap some of it in reverse chronological order.

Right now, I am sitting in the back of the Magnum in the configuration I call "the couch": hatch fully open so I can sit at the foot of the bed facing out. We're parked in campsite 29, named "Aries" (which happens to be my star sign), of City of Rocks State Park in Faywood, NM. Before I go any further, I have to give a public service announcement: If you live anywhere within driving distance of this park, or if you ever find yourself thus situated, GO. GO TO THIS PARK. It is quite possibly my favorite surprise slice of awesome so far, and I only wish we could stay here longer than a single night. As it is, I am thanking my lucky stars White Sands National Monument was making me feel hot and half-blind, so that we decided to make our way to this park a little earlier than originally planned.

I might be spoiling the surprise somewhat here, since part of the thrill was arriving without really knowing what to expect. Faywood is in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by desert plains and ringed by craggy looking dark brown mountains. I initially only put City of Rocks down as a stop because it was conveniently located, but rounding the corner of a completely deserted road flanked by yucca soaptrees and seeing the park for the first time was a "Oh my holy crap" experience. It really is a City of Rocks. There is no better description. A collection of fascinatingly weathered massive vertical rocks that look as though they were stacked side-by-side by the same ancient aliens that no doubt threw together Stone Henge, Macchu Picchu, and the statues of Easter Island. And it comes out of nowhere. There is nothing else like it in the vicinity, at least not that we passed as we drove through west Texas and east New Mexico.

FLICKR SET: Roadtrop: City of Rocks State Park, NM

So freaking cool. The rock formations remind me very much of odd Australian geological features like the Olgas, and the view out from the rocks, cliched as it may be to say it, is breathtaking. Miles of plains and mountains give way to blue skies, vivid Southwestern sunsets and the kind of bejewelled night skies you would expect to see in a desert park in the middle of nowhere. Better still, the facilities are perfect for us, with primitive but developed campsites (running water and bathrooms close by, a grill and picnic table at each site, and room for parking) available for only $10. Ten dollars! This is what camping is supposed to be like. There are also hookups for RV's; I think those sites are a whopping $14.

The campsites are actually integrated into the rock formations; if we wanted to brave the 52 degree fahrenheit low temp, we could sleep nestled in between the rocks themselves. There are plenty of hollows that look perfect for a sleeping bag or small tent, though we'll probably stick to the car. We cooked noodles for dinner, with French bread dipped in Colavita olive oil for starters and chai tea for dessert.

OK, so working backwards: this morning, we were at White Sands National Monument, after dropping in briefly on the White Sands Missile Range where a humorless soldier at the gate informed us that the museum was not open (it was 7:30AM) but we could look at the "Missile Park," although photography outside of the park was strictly prohibited. Somehow he made it sound like looking at the Missile Park wasn't a request, so we dutifully parked our car and walked between outdoor exhibits of a couple dozen rockets, missiles, launchers, and aircraft. Most chilling to me was the Fat Man bomb casing:

FLICKR SET: Roadtrop: White Sands

The National Monument itself was just as beautiful as I had been led to believe, though as I said, it was a touch hot. Although the air temperature was only 80 degrees or so, anything left in the sun was soon fried, such as my brain. The light reflecting off the sands was so bright that I was squinting even while wearing my darkest sunglasses. Still, I tried really hard, because it's a gorgeous place. Funny, if you put White Sands and the City of Rocks together, the result would remind me of the White Desert in Egypt that we visited a few years ago. Bah, my internet is crawling so slowly at the moment, I can't even search my Flickr for the photos, but you could if you were interested. The White Desert remains probably the most beautiful place I've visited on the entire planet.

Most surreal experiences of the day: being pulled off the highway twice for mandatory inspections by Border Patrol. Here is the script for this security theater farce:

[Melissa and Matt exit the highway as directed and pull their car into a large open checkpoint structure, rolling down their window to talk to a border patrol officer.]
Border Patrol Officer: Hello, how are you today?
Matt: Fine, how are you?
Border Patrol Officer: Good. Are you a US citizen?
Matt: Yes.
Border Patrol Officer: [To Melissa] US citizen?
Melissa: Yes.
Border Patrol Officer: OK, have a nice day now.
[He waves the car on. Melissa and Matt pull back onto the highway while Melissa laughs raucously in incredulity and despair.]


Afterward, we discussed hilarious alternative responses to the question "Are you a US citizen?" such as "Si, senor! I mean, yes! Yes, sir!" or "A citizen? I am now!"

Yesterday the main order of the day was the Carlsbad Caverns. I don't think I can do justice to them at all without pictures, and besides, the sun is completely gone now and the telescope is beckoning, so I'll post this and hopefully find some moments tomorrow to retrace Wednesday through Friday.

Posted by mormolyke 21:28 Archived in USA Tagged new_mexico white_sands city_of_rocks border_patrol faywood Comments (0)

Ten years in New Orleans

2002 vs. 2012

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Back in 2002, when Matt and I were falling in love in New Orleans, we took a bunch of candid snapshots.

This year, we went back to where some of those snapshots were taken (including the hostel where we originally stayed, which we were delighted to discover has been kept exactly the same:

FLICKR SET: Roadtrop: NOLA Ten Years 2002-2012

We're about to hit Dallas, so I have to keep this brief, but in a follow up to our previous blog entry, we did end up dropping in on Tulane and the American Routes studio, though I had no idea what I would say to anyone there really, other than I LOVE YOUR SHOW, so we just took a picture, which is probably even creepier:


We finished New Orleans with a drive to Bullets Bar to see Kermit Ruffins play. We haven't seen Treme yet (hurry up and get on Netflix, dammit!), but we discovered Kermit through, you guessed it, American Routes, and luckily enough, we were in New Orleans on a Tuesday night ...

FLICKR SET: Roadtrop: New Orleans

Posted by mormolyke 10:53 Archived in USA Tagged new_orleans american_routes tulane kermit_ruffins tenyears Comments (1)

What to play and how to play it

American Routes on American routes

sunny 84 °F
View Roadtrop on mormolyke's travel map.

When we're not roadtropping across America, Matt works as a web programmer, and I'm a Benjamin Franklin fellow finishing up a Ph.D. in music composition at the University of Pennsylvania. I've blogged about this before: one of the dirty little secrets of being a music Ph.D. is that after a few years of studying music fulltime, most of us find ourselves listening to less and less music outside of school. I got to a point where I couldn't stand listening to music in the background anymore while I worked, did chores, ate, or drove. It's hard to say exactly why this is the case, but it's something to do with losing the ability to turn off the part of the brain that analyzes each piece, and at times being so saturated with music that listening to it feels too much like work. There's also something grating about listening to music when there's a part of your brain that is trying to compose; it's as though a voice in your head is yelling, "Shut up! I'm trying to do complicated math, and listening to these numbers is making me lose count."

The one consistent exception that I didn't mention in the blog entry I linked above is that I love listening to American Routes, a public radio show that is ostensibly about jazz, blues, and roots music, but occasionally branches out into other eclectic genres of American music. It's hosted by Nick Spitzer, who, as I just discovered from the linked bio page, is a Penn alum who used to run WXPN. Although we have Sirius satellite radio, we've listened to more American Routes than anything else while on the road; they have a terrific archive of past shows that you can stream from their website. Matt's iPhone handles the streaming, and it's plugged into the aux input of our car stereo (although it's apparently playing havoc with his "unlimited" AT&T data plan. "Unlimited." Pffft.). It's the perfect Great American Roadtrop Adventure soundtrack. Sometimes I get out my mandolin and jam along for hours while Matt's in the driver's seat.

I was interviewed by a fellow grad student at Penn a few weeks ago for a paper she was writing about the way composers listen to music (she's also a composer and has also experienced the phenomenon I describe). I mentioned the fact that I listen to American Routes, and we were trying to dissect why I can do that. After a couple of moments batting around theories, I suddenly came up with: "It's music without the bullshit." I'm not sure I can define what that means more clearly, but saying it out loud, I realized it felt absolutely right. It's music without the bullshit, and I can listen to it without my brain even trying to find the bullshit. Happiness.

Right now, I'm sitting in Basin Street Station, and since we've listened to so much Amerian Routes, we're trying to figure out if it would be creepy/weird to go to Tulane University and try to find the American Routes office so we can leave a donation and gush at them a bit. Is that weird? It's probably weird.

FLICKR SET: Roadtrop: New Orleans

Posted by mormolyke 13:43 Archived in USA Tagged music new_orleans american_routes basin_street Comments (2)

Flickr dump from Matt's camera

I'm a few days behind, so it's a trip down (short) memory lane

Here is a small selection of the photos I've taken while in Savannah, Daytona, Key West, Cape Canaveral, the Everglades, and Miami - not in that order. You can now find them as a subset of pix.roadtrop.com.


Posted by leviathant 09:28 Archived in USA Comments (1)

Bite sized Roadtrop time-lapse videos, hot off the renderer

The Everglades, Key West, and going north through Florida.

sunny 84 °F

The last two days' time-lapse videos are a bit different from the previous crop, for rather silly reasons. Two days ago, after we wrapped up lunch in Key West, I turned the GoPro on, and forgot to change it out of it's default startup mode of 'video', so the last half of the day was recorded as full HD 1080p realtime video, which I could probably take the time to cut down to a time-lapse version, but time on this trip is precious, so I'm just excising it. Most of it is us driving around Key West, and these sorts of videos are more interesting (to me) when we're going down long stretches of highway, or if we've planted the car in front of something interesting.

The following morning, while an amazing amount of mosquitos flew around our car and tried in vain to get through the flyscreens we magnetically attached over our sunroof and windows, I sat down with the GoPro manual and had another look at the settings, as I hadn't had much time to get to know it before the trip. I discovered that I could set the camera to record the pictures upside down, saving me from having to rotate the video in Vegas. I also discovered the different exposure modes, notably, the one that's designed for mounting it on your dashboard pointing outward. With the new default mode being set, hopefully I won't miss any more of our travels.

Since the Day 7 video was so short, instead of playing it back at half-speed, it's actually at quarter speed, and if you're one of the 7 or 8 people who watches these things, please comment and let me know if you prefer that to the speed all the other ones play back at, or if it doesn't really matter. And in a break from the musical backgrounds we've been including and composing, the Key West video simply uses field recording from the street where we were parked for a bit in Key West. It'll be interesting to see if YouTube identifies the music in the background and chastises me for it.

Day 8 was long, long slog from our camping spot, located at the end of the one road into the Everglades, stopping at the Robert Is Here Fruit Stand (it's really so much more than a fruit stand) and pausing at Starbucks for our morning upload, then driving up through central Florida, ultimately heading west into Pensacola, where we stayed with an old friend of mine, Jordan. He's stationed there with the Navy, after having spent a while in Gitmo- as medical staff, not as a detainee! The drive was something to the tune of 12 hours long, it was definitely 12 hours boring. The magic of the GoPro intervalometer has transformed that into two short minutes, where even in HD mode, you'd have to strain to see all the bug splats before we hit the storm that helped wash them off our windshield, if not our bumper.

We recorded the music for that video a few nights ago while staying in Homestead. I didn't get as much time to work on this. Actually, it's about as raw as you can get - it's just Melissa playing over a beat I wrote. There are more important things to do on this trip than fleshing out musical sketches - but I really like that we're making music as we go. Given how much American Routes we are consuming via streaming audio on the drive (to AT&T's chagrin, according to a text message I got) I wonder how long before what we record starts to sound like rootsy blues/jazz/country/rock. That actually works as a nice wrap to this post, as our next stop is New Orleans! We have to go to Basin Street Station and give them a fat donation for the binge streaming we've done over the past week.

Posted by leviathant 09:31 Archived in USA Tagged florida key_west time everglades pensacola lapse gopro time_lapse robert_is_here Comments (2)

Where to stay, and how to stay it

Accommodations on the road

View Roadtrop on mormolyke's travel map.

One of the more adventure-y aspects of our roadtrop is the question of where we'll be bedding down each night. While we have a couple of necessary pre-bookings along the way -- such as the hostel in New Orleans where we stayed in 2002, and campsites in the Grand Canyon, Yosemite, and Yellowstone -- most of the time, we're effectively winging it. Do we find a campsite for our compact wheeled space capsule, or boondock in a parking lot somewhere? Or do we cave and grab a motel room so we can shower and stretch out? It's actually been pretty fun figuring it out each day, and I'm glad we didn't plan every stop.

The first night, we lived on the edge, and caught some unwanted attention for it. I had originally jotted down the name of an RV park in Cape Hatteras, but, buoyed by the excitement of beginning the trip and turned off by the cost of the RV park, we chose a different route. We knew we wanted to climb the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse early the next morning before heading to Asheville, so we thought, why not just head down and see what was there? We found a large parking lot near the beach that was completely empty, silent but for the crash of waves on the beach, and pitch black -- except for occasional flashes of lightning to the south, and the piercing light of the lighthouse itself, less than half a mile away, spinning its beams into the night sky. It was somehow a bit terrifying, but a stunningly beautiful experience -- if I had that night over, I wouldn't have parked anywhere else.


Unforrrrrtunately, it turned out that the carpark belonged to the surrounding national park, and at 7:30AM, we were awakened by a loud rap on the Magnum window. I startle awake even in the most familiar surroundings, so the sudden knocking immediately sent me into paroxysms of loudly squawking "SHIT! SHIT! SHIT!" that I'm sure made an impression on the park ranger standing outside our car. Matt struggled to pull on some pants and find the car keys so he could open a window (yet another reason I still prefer manual winding windows) and face the music. The music turned out to be a brief lecture from the poor ranger about how trashy the Outer Banks would be if everyone just slept wherever they wanted, and a hilariously cheerful Matt countered by showing him our National Park Service Annual Pass and handing out one of our roadtrop.com business cards so the ranger could learn all about our epic trip which had just begun.

We were let off with a warning, which handily makes a sweet souvenir of our stay:


The second night, we found a Super 8 in Knoxville, TN. We were originally planning to find the hotel we stayed at when we roadtripped to New Orleans in 2002, but as it turns out, A LOT has changed in Knoxville in the last ten years. We had a vague idea that it was the Holiday Inn, but the area has evidently come up, because the Holiday Inn was $150 a night, and we weren't going to pay that much on a hunch. The Super 8 five miles away was all of $40.

Day three, we crashed with Dave and Charlene, but the next night, we had our first legitimate Walmart boondocking experience (we had previously made a hilarious failed illegitimate attempt during one of our pre-roadtrop jaunts). About half of all Walmarts around the country allow overnight parking by RV's and other camper vehicles -- if you google around, you can find a list of which ones do and which don't. The important thing is to always call ahead to check, out of courtesy and because each store has the right to change their rules whenever they want. The Walmart outside of Savannah was super laidback about letting us park -- there was an RV and a truck already in situ when we pulled in at around 1AM -- and they had a security guard patrolling the lot, so we could sleep in complete safety.

We did the same thing a couple of nights ago on the way to Miami, but at a Cracker Barrel in Deerfield Beach. The official Cracker Barrel company policy is that overnight parking isn't allowed, but we already knew from reading blogs that, in practice, most of them are fine with travelers who ask to stay. We waited until after we ate dinner and had a long conversation with our server about gas prices and electric cars before raising the question, and without pause, the friendly manager said, "Sure!" He didn't even need our assurance that we would come in for breakfast in the morning before we trucked (well, station-wagoned) out.

Other nights so far, we've stayed at cheap motels - our only stipulation is that the place we choose should look at least as presentable as motels on the X-Files. Believe it or not, there are many, many motels out there that are so dank and seedy, they make X-Files motels look like resorts. Some of them give me a serious Texas Chainsaw Massacre vibe.

Last night we camped in Everglades National Park. I had done my research, so I knew that our greatest challenge at the park would be biblical plagues of mosquitoes. American mosquitoes provoke some gnarly histamine reactions when they suck my Australian blood, so I had brought defenses: an Off lantern, mosquito coils, and plenty of DEET spray. I had also whipped up some custom-fit flyscreens for the Magnum which attach to the outside of the car with sewn-in neodymium magnets (strong enough that we could drive through the park at 55mph without them blowing off).

FLICKR SET: Roadtrop: Everglades National Park

It was a good thing we prepared. Jesus Christ. I was bitten a couple of times mounting the flyscreens at the visitor center parking lot, which had a low density of mosquitoes; the campground 40 miles deep into the park was so full of clouds of mosquitoes, I didn't dare leave the car. Matt went to use the bathroom (stumbling over a camper who had pitched a tent in the men's bathroom in an attempt to stave off the bloodsuckers), and even he came running back as quickly as he could (Matt barely reacts to insect bites, as proven a few years ago during our Egypt vacation, when I was COVERED in excruciating bedbug bites while he appeared completely untouched).

I'm looking forward to our future overnights. We have some more stays with friends lined up, more national parks, and a log cabin in South Dakota.

Posted by mormolyke 12:52 Archived in USA Tagged accommodation national_parks camping everglades cape_hatteras motels boondocking deerfield_beach Comments (1)


Also, the Everglades and Key West

sunny 88 °F
View Roadtrop on mormolyke's travel map.

Well, well, Florida. Aside from an amazingly run of bad luck trying to find a decent wifi connection (first world problems!), we have had a pretty damned awesome time here so far. Remaining activities: camping in Everglades National Park tonight, and a drive out of the state toward Alabama tomorrow.

On Wednesday night, we found ourselves a surprisingly decent cheap motel right across the street from Daytona Beach - I think it was called Budget Inn Express. The rooms and exterior were newly painted, and it was run by a South Asian woman who had scented the lobby like spicy incense and curry, so I was sold. Oh, and it was only $40 per night. What. I continually find it difficult to accept that RV parking and camping is routinely around the same price as a cheap motel.

Thursday morning, I took my turn in the driver's seat, and the first place I steered the Magnum was out onto the beach. Yes, Daytona is one of the few places in the USA where you can actually drive on the beach itself (for $5 per day). It's not quite the international speedway, but that didn't stop me thinking about all the money I fondly fed into Daytona USA arcade machines back in the days when one would actually leave one's house to play video games in dedicated venues. The beach speed limit was only 10 miles per hour, but that beats standing in front of an arcade game.

FLICKR SET: Roadtrop: Highway A1A

Then it was off to our first true nerdgasm of the roadtrop: Kennedy Space Center. I think one of the reasons Matt and I work so well as a couple, especially when traveling, is that we shared the same obsessions as kids; we each went through phases of intense interest in Ancient Egypt, dinosaurs, and space. I was lucky enough for my space fascination to carry me all the way to Space Camp in Huntsville, Alabama, in 1994, where I spent a week at the NASA Space Academy earning my Level II NASA wings. It was a very cute experience, in retrospect: a kind of crash course in the very, very basics of being an astronaut, full of hilarious cultural clashes and 14-year-old hormones run amok.

So going to the Kennedy Space Center was a bit like being a kid again, especially since the park is kind of geared toward kids. Which is fine; if you want a return to living in a country with a decent space program, you probably have to start by inspiring the next generation to actually give a shit. I found my moment of shivering awe in the Apollo/Saturn V facility, where we were treated to a three-screen documentary about the launch of Apollo 8, ending with a bone-shaking recreation of the actual launch (they had some pretty boss subwoofers in the theater). I was actually choking back tears when it was over, and it only got worse when we exited the theater to find ourselves in an enormous pavilion containing an actual Saturn V rocket.

I don't agree with Ayn Rand's views about nearly everything, but one exception is that I too feel fiercely proud of humankind's greatest achievements. (The difference is that I sort of feel that the greatest achievements of all are the result of many people working together, you know, collectively - a feeling that seems to be shared by all the astronauts in every documentary, who rush to lavish praise on the 100,000 nameless people on the ground who make each mission possible. Sorry, Ayn, this is not really the work of solitary misanthropic geniuses.)

FLICKR SET: Roadtrop: Kennedy Space Center

The next day, we finally made it to Miami, a city awash in the colors of the 1980's that I have secretly wanted to visit since Miami Vice (though the pop culture reference we kept making as we were driving around was GTA: Vice City). We swam in South Beach, where the lukewarm and gorgeous waters are so clear that when two $20 bills accidentally floated out of Matt's shorts, he found them both on the sandy sea floor within five minutes. For dinner, we ate delicious Cuban food in Little Havana, and afterward drove around the fairly impressive downtown area.

FLICKR SET: Roadtrop: Miami

If I can whinge for a minute, I have to say that Miami's inner-city highways are a confusion of utterly terrifying spaghetti roads, and our Garmin seemed determined to try and kill us. "Take ramp to highway [whichever] on right." OK. Note that the highway is comprised of ten lanes full of Bentleys and Ferraris traveling at 70mph, but our Magnum has a pretty great 0-60, so we make it easily. "In 300ft, take exit on left." WHAT. YOU WANT ME TO VEER THROUGH FIVE LANES OF SPEEDING SUPERCARS AND TAKE A HAIRPIN TURN EXIT IN 300FT. WHAT THE ARRRRRGHH--

Today, after checking in at Everglades National Park to make sure there are available campground spots, we drove through the Florida Keys to Key West.

FLICKR SET: Roadtrop: Key West

I am pretty sure Key West was created to give me somewhere to retire. I am obsessed with cats and chickens. Key West is obsessed with cats and chickens. I hate the cold winters of the North East. Key West is frost-free. I love a city with a huge LGBT scene. Hello, it's Key West. I like to be able to see the ocean now and then. Water, water everywhere. The only sticking points of retiring here one day are the cost of real estate and the unfortunate consequences of hurricanes. This is why I need to become stupendously rich and also learn how to control the weather with my mind.

Oh, once again, we have time-lapse videos from Day 6 and Day 7:

And of course, there are pix aplenty at pix.roadtrop.com.

Posted by mormolyke 18:07 Archived in USA Tagged florida key_west daytona miami space kennedy_space_center rockets florida_keys south_beach nerds time_lapse Comments (2)

Timelapse: a day of roadtropping in under two minutes

Bite size pieces of our view on the road

In planning for this trip, I thought it might be a cool idea to do a timelapse video of our journey. We certainly wouldn't be the only people who've done this, but it would be a great way for us to remember a month-long trip that's so packed with events that a week in, I'm already having trouble remembering just where it was we were three days ago. At first, I thought about getting some older Canon point-n-shoot, installing hacked firmware, and mounting that somewhere, but after doing some research, I discovered that a camera called the GoPro Hero HD has a built-in intervalometer. You can set it up to shoot pictures every 1, 5, 10, 30, or 60 seconds. Maybe even more than that, but that's all I needed to know. So a few weeks before we hit the road, we checked Adorama, and they happened to have a blowout on the previous generation of the camera, to make room for the newer, even flashier cameras.

These little things are amazing machines. I'd seen videos people took with them, but in doing this research, it was the two videos of people dropping their GoPros while skydiving (at 2,000ft and 13,000ft), then finding them (while they were still filming!) that sold me. Or maybe it was the video of a GoPro falling off a surfboard and rolling around in a reef that impressed me (That one was found a few months later, in perfect working condition). I knew that nothing we were doing would be that hardcore, except maybe climbing Half-dome, but that level of engineering really impressed me. What also impressed me was that it was $153 for the camera, with six mounts, a 200mph suction cup mount, and two cases (one waterproof), new in the box.

I tried mounting it to the dashboard, but had I read the instructions I would have known that for as great as the 3M moutning adhesive is, it doesn't work on textured plastic. So, on the glass behind the rear view mirror it went. Through a somewhat archaic process involving the two buttons and cryptic LCD display, I set the camera up to take a photo every 30 seconds. I had to buy a new (third!) case that allowed me to run USB into it so that we could power the camera whenever the car was on.

The case also has a slot on the side for easy removal of the hot-swappable SD card. I can pull the card out, dump the photos onto a hard drive, then pop it back in and it picks up taking photos where it had left off.

Like any other digital camera, it stores the photos using incremental numbers appended to the photo name. This comes very much in handy when its time to turn those photos into a video. For this, I use one of my favorite all-around programs, Sony Vegas. I started out using this for multitrack audio, but it's developed into a phenomenal video editor, and I've learned how to utilize that. In this case, I import the photo sequence, set a framerate, and because the camera is mounted upside down in the car, rotate the video. I play around with the resolution, reducing it for a speedier upload, add audio, render, then whenever we have wifi, upload it to YouTube.

With some downtime in Daytona, Melissa busted out the mandolin she brought with her, and recorded a tune into our Zoom H4n. I put together a beat using Figure on my iPhone, and dubbed in some traffic sounds I recorded outside our hotel. Since I had uploaded the first few videos before having audio, I simply used YouTube's audio replace function to swap in music, but you can hear part of the track we recorded on the Day 4 video. Day 5 features a beat I put together on the Tempest a few months ago as part of Melissa's composition for "Pulse," a dance piece performed in New York earlier this year.

Day 1: Philadelphia to Cape Hatteras

Day 2: From the Outer Banks to Knoxville, TN

Day 3: Knoxville, TN to Atlanta, GA

Day 4: Spending the day in Atlanta, then driving to Savannah

Day 5: Savannah to Daytona Beach via Highway A1A

Also, there are more pictures available at pix.roadtrop.com:


Posted by leviathant 11:56 Archived in USA Tagged florida savannah georgia daytona atlanta kennedy_space_center video gopro timelapse Comments (0)

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