Dec 26, 2007


Merlin at Donner SummitWheels rolling, noon. The red Merlin Mobile is packed for three independent weeks, with full chauffeur visibility in all directions. Merlin’s entire back seat is padded with dog bed and towels. Drinks and food bowls are secured and convenient, both rear passenger windows are accessible for cow and sheep spotting. As we drive away, squirrels scamper into our yard, gleeful that Merlin is off duty. We’re only a day and a half behind our projected schedule. Should be no problem. Our tech prep is revamped for blogging.

From San Rafael we skirt the southern end of California’s Wine Country and cross the new Vallejo skyway bypass, sniffing for tigers at the park formerly known as Marine World. We join I-80 East towards the state capitol, Sacramento. We’ll stay on this great across-North-America ribbon of highway until the far side of Chicago. Merlin surveys the familiar landscape around Vacaville. Yes, that is Spanish/French for Cow Village. We have our usual UC Davis refueling stretch and sniff stop, and pass our customary South Lake Tahoe turnoff to continue east towards Reno. Road Trip Merlin inspires frequent breaks. As driver-navigator, I pledge to stop at all rest stops and any other remotely interesting pull-offs. Our first official highway traveler stop is Gold Run Rest Area near Dutch Flat. Merlin at Gold Run Rest AreaMerlin lopes amongst the Pines, happy in the crisp mountain air. Several fellow travelers approach us and ask to say hello to Merlin. He graciously accepts his role as Doggie Ambassador for dog-less travelers. He once agreed to pose with 20 visitors from India for a photo overlooking the Golden Gate Bridge. Back on the road, we climb into the Sierra mountains and, hey, it’s snowing! Mid-October seems a bit early for California snow but then the weather has been squirrelly everywhere. We take the first exit for a little romp in the flurries and recognize the Kingvale gas station, fondly. A few summers back we explored the old Emigrant Gap/ Donner Pass backroad. The driver, obviously not me, allowed the gas tank to fall below half, then a quarter, then almost empty before admitting it was time to look for a gas station. In the wilderness back country. Where the ill-fated Donner Party pioneers died of starvation. The old wagon trail road had to return to the freeway eventually, right? And every freeway exit has a gas station, right? So I pretended to enjoy the magnificent mountain wilderness, while calculating how much camera gear and dog water I could carry if I had to walk out. Would Merlin enjoy a ride in a State Park Land Rover, if one ever found us? And, are you supposed to stay with your out-of-gas vehicle, or walk along the road towards civilization? With the empty gas tank warning light blazing, we regained the freeway. After several gas station-less exits (surprised?) we coasted into Kingvale on fumes, and jubilantly filled the tank. To avoid such avoidable anxiety, whenever I’m driving the vehicle gas tank is always at least half full, especially when traveling on my own, especially thousands of miles.

Donner Summit Snow Shake Meanwhile Merlin, blissfully ignorant of the fuel requirements for his adventure, runs pass the gas pumps and leaps into the nearest snowbank. He races around, nipping the snow, before throwing himself on his back to make rolly poly doggie snow angels. I excavate the Michigan snow gloves and throw some snowballs, which Merlin chomps in mid-air. Back in the car, we blast the heat and continue towards the summit. Caltrans, the California Transportation Commission, has live traffic cameras, including I-80 near Truckee. This stretch looks very familiar; it’s where the TV camera crews interview drivers stopped in Sunday evening five hour traffic jams during ski season. My standing policy is to avoid driving when snow chains are required, preferring to travel clear roads, relying on the Merlin Mobile’s 4-wheel all-weather capabilities for any weather surprises. Thick fluffy flurries greet us at the Donner Summit Rest Area. We park between people leaping out of their cars in shorts and sandals to throw snowballs. Merlin romps and barks in the fresh new snow.
I always have a snack at Donner Summit. It seems an eternally hungry place, almost as if the landscape itself remembers the harrowing story of the Donner Party emigrants caught in the early snow of 1846, succumbing to cold, starvation, despair, and cannibalism. Their story soured the Westward Ho wagon train fever, until gold launched the 1849-er California rush. One hundred and fifty years later, playing with my dog in the snow, near our car full of food and water, insulated clothing and sleeping bags, I wonder at the travelers who walked west into a hostile wilderness from the settled East. Stranded for six months in 20 foot snow drifts is beyond my comprehension, and, hopefully, remains outside of my personal experience. I vow to always carry my charged cell phone on my person.

Donner SummitThe freeway signs are coated with wet snow, but the way east is obvious. By the time we approach Reno, the sudden snow has disappeared and the sun shines cheerfully. Our Road Trip prep included consulting the Worldwide Labyrinth Locator and cross referencing local resources for interesting roadside attractions along our route. Merlin at Brodhead Park LabyrinthThere are two promising labyrinths in Reno and I type their addresses into GPS Tom-Tom. The first is on a riverside bike-path, under a bridge, in what turns out to be a rather rough looking part of town. The sun slides under the overpass to light the river stone pathway, but the homeless people pushing shopping carts and overhead road clanking makes Merlin uneasy, so we don't stay long. The second labyrinth is a Lea Goode-Harris Santa Rosa design May Arboretum Labyrinth in the Rancho San Rafael Regional Park. We follow bold signs to the Labyrinth Garden in May Arboretum and enjoy a spectacular sunset walk in the pleasant surroundings.

After a quick picnic, we rig for night driving and leave bright town for dark desert. Cars become scarce and three-trailer trucks common, fishtailing in the crosswinds. Merlin in May Arboretum Labyrinth

Merlin has been to Reno before- it’s his End of the Known World. He looks out into the dark, watching for whatever is Beyond Reno.

Day One: Home to somewhere in Nevada. 310 miles.

Nov 28, 2007

Prep and Pack

Merlin Packed in BackseatEvery journey begins with the first step, and a road trip of 6,200 miles begins with rolling out the driveway, but the preparation for every journey begins with the decision to go. When the Michigan wedding invitation surprised me last summer, I was suffering with a persistent sinus infection exacerbated by that long west coast flight to Paris, and was in my usual post-flight never gonna get on a plane again funk. But the photo booth magnet with the cute couple imploring "Save the Date" convinced me I had to attend. I RSVPed on the wedding wedsite and began figuring out how to get there. It’s always difficult for me to fly to Detroit, mostly because direct flights to London are 1/3 the price (a reason lost on my mom, who insists on living near Detroit). A helpful voice in my head suggested, “You could drive…” and the idea snowballed. The more I thought about it, the more it seemed like a good, even great, idea. The more people I told, the more the idea was encouraged. The world became divided into people who love long road trips and people who thought I was crazy. Just like whenever we think we are first to discover a new book, plan a trip to a secret location, or suffer an accident or illness, everyone suddenly has a personal story to share. Apparently, almost everyone in California drove here from somewhere else. Many people have driven America coast to coast, or have always wanted to someday. The local long distance drive winner is a Marin labyrinth pal who moved her family by car from Louisiana to Alaska several decades ago, with toddlers.

An obvious first stop for an across America road trip is AAA, locally the California State Automobile Association. I adore maps, and a have lifetime AAA membership just for the all-the-maps-you-can-eat option. Their motto, Dream, Plan, Go! resonates nicely with my travel philosophy. They never say I’m crazy when I take in my map request list. I’ve found their travel drive time estimates maddeningly accurate. Their current USA map states San Francisco to Detroit is 36 hours. Six six-hour days seemed almost too easy. I turned to the packing checklists.

Yes, I’m a confessed list maker. Externalized memory leaves more room for creative thought. Besides, I hate trying to figure out how to say band-aid or kleenex in a foreign language; FYI: It’s Band-Aid® and Kleenex®. Over the years I have refined succinct travel lists for photo expeditions, foreign travel, conference presentations. There are two Merlin outing checklists, day-trip and overnight, and a stay behind at home dog-sitter checklist complete with vocabulary list (500+ distinct words and phrases). The Merlin’s Road Trip checklist required a creative merging of extended weekend getaway and photo outing with Merlin overnight, plus wedding clothes. The good thing about packing a car versus an airline carry-on, is that you can take as much as you want. The bad thing about packing a car for a trip is that you think you can take as much as you want. Merlin comfort had priority, followed by camera gear. The front passenger area got all the maps, GPS, cellphone, snacks. The way-back cargo area got a winter sleeping bag and Merlin’s down vest, in case we both ended up napping in the car, on purpose or stranded. Yes, I’m the person who always has matches for candles and a Swiss Army knife in my purse. Plan for contingencies. Tertiary back-ups. Packing for a California visit to the American Midwest, is alarmingly similar to preparing for a third world country, without the electrical plug adapters. Extra vitamins, strong tea, sturdy shoes and enough clothes to not have to do laundry more than once in a hotel sink. Rain-gear. Snow-brush windshield scraper. Driving gloves. Dog food, people food, non-high fructose energy drinks, gallon jugs of water. OK, the water was for Nevada. Michigan is the water, winter, wonderland.

For travel checklists newbies, two good sources of ready-made checklists are REI and Rick Steves’ Travel Tips. What’s your favorite essential Road Trip item?

Nov 14, 2007

Blog Bogged

My intention to post a travel blog every day while driving solo across America turned out a tad ambitious. Driving 300-500 miles each day was fine, but frequent stretch and sniff stops, minor diversions, and finding dog friendly wi-fi lodgings each evening left little time for coherent writing. Hotel room arrival involved finding enough electrical outlets to recharge computer, camera, phone, bluetooth headset, iPod, and me. Solo human and canine care had to be woven into the familiar digital workflow of downloading photos, checking email, backing everything up, and googling specific details for the next day’s itinerary. The route emerged from local maps, state travel guides, old magazine clippings, labyrinth location printouts, and brochures from the hotel lobby, plus online and on the ground research. It took a few days to refine unpacking and repacking the car each day. We were up, packed, and underway as early as possible every morning, which wasn’t as early as I would have liked. Most writers agree that the best time of day to write is upon waking, when consciousness floats out of dreamspace pulling a bargeload of incredibly imaginative ideas back into tangible reality. Most travelers agree that the best time to get on the road as soon as you’re awake, helped by a good breakfast and hot coffee, to get a clear, strong start on the day. Considering I’ll write right through to lunch once I get going, Merlin and I decided the road trip asserted priority. Even without morning journaling, we were often the last vehicle to leave the parking lot, by an embarrassing 9 am. Looking at the USA map on the third day, I began to get nervous about missing the wedding. My leisurely extra half week buffer began to look like a week too short. We had known it would get dark earlier as we approached winter, but we underestimated how dark and how early as we looked for lodgings in the late afternoon twilight, stopping far before our projected destination city each night. And we kept losing whole hours to silly time zones crossings. Zap. Plus, it snowed. So, although we may give away the ending by announcing that we survived and are now back home, (friends, applaud here) we remain driven to share our journey. Here follows postings of scribbled notes and snapshots, with fleeting observations and sudden insights from slick travel brochures and crooked photocopies about the most amazingly unbelievable local attractions. Thanks for riding along on Merlin’s Road Trip.

Oct 15, 2007

Merlin's Road Trip Begins

Merlin's Road Trip Begins
Merlin’s Road Trip is an On The Road journal of travel musings. Our first journey is a mid-October 2007 drive from our home in Marin Country, California to Michigan, and back. The impetus for this expedition was an innocent note in July from one of our best friends from undergraduate Kalamazoo College announcing her daughter’s Saturday-before-Halloween wedding. Since air travel isn’t the joyous party it used to be, I thought: Road Trip! The idea flash took on a life of its own, spawning enthusiasm and triggering sparks in all directions. This blog will muse and weave bite-size bits as we traverse the miles.

Merlin’s Road Trip may meander, but like any pilgrimage, it will be purposeful travel. Driving across America will immerse us in the physical environment of a national landscape. Traveling from the creative freedom of California through the wild west to the industrial midwest will challenge us to retain our inner bearings. Traveling as a pilgrim orients us to seek the essence and interconnectedness of all life and strengthens our sense of greater purpose and global community. Travel literally expands our horizons, and being away helps us appreciate the return home. The traveler weaves together what she knows and what she discovers into a richer dialogue.

I moved out to Livermore, California in 1979 from Kalamazoo, Michigan, in a red Mazda hatchback with an open U-Haul trailer containing everything I owned. I knew it was a one way trip, like the wagon train pioneers. I’ve never driven back; never even considered driving back for fun. I do adore a good road trip and have been all over England and France in various borrowed and rented cars. Merlin’s mobile dog house has popped up around northern California and as far as the Grand Canyon. It’s probably on my list to drive across the continent some time, but the perfect two months free have yet to align. Since it's my 50th year and I’m getting a bit anxious about getting to everything on my list, it seems an appropriate time to create a personal pilgrimage of reclamation, remembering, renewal, and return to origin (born: Pontiac, Michigan). With dog Merlin, we'll have a lovely non-verbal drive where I can reflect, stop for photos and sniffing whenever we like, and sing along with the iTunes radio at the top of our lungs.

We’re planning to take I-80 east and I-70 west, with spontaneous side trip meandering. Let us know if there’s something we must see. Wave if we ramble through your town. We’ll be back for Fall Open Studios, Nov 10-11, weather, Indian petroglyphs, photo opportunities, and labyrinth stops permitting. Welcome to our Road Trip blog. Later!