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Welcome to the online blog for traveler/writer/photographer Steven Barber. Come in. Relax. Take off your shoes and socks -- or any other article of clothing, this is the internet. Have a look around. I hope to intrigue, amuse, entertain, and maybe provoke you just a little. I love to find adventure. All I need is a change of clothes, my Nikon, an open mind and a strong cup of coffee.

Monday, August 14, 2017

THE GRAND TOUR - First Half Recap

The last two days of the trip sort of melded into one blog entry, then vanished completely. We had a problem with the wifi at a B&B in Harper's Ferry which proved to be problematic. In the future I will post a "travelogue" of Harpers Ferry. It's a fascinating and historic site deserving of a more in-depth review.

So, on we go. Time to recap the first half of the journey as we prepare for the second leg, back to Long Beach.

We're here in Annapolis, Maryland after a madcap dash across the country. 2815 miles. The San Bernardino, Wasatch, Rocky, Blue and Appalachian mountain ranges. Five major American rivers - the Colorado, the Missouri, Mississippi, the Shenandoah and the Potomac. 14 states. Tens of thousands of acres of corn. Six major cities and dozens and dozens of small towns. "Blue" enclaves and full "red" states.

Along the way we encountered stunning scenery in Utah, expensive parking in Vail, a very tall structure in St Louis, a beautiful hotel in Cincinnati an some of the country's most important history in Harpers Ferry.

One of the premiere notes we take away from this adventure was how nice Americans are. All too often we see each other in terms of race, politics and economy. But the truth of the matter is that most people are extremely decent folk when given half a chance. America's strongest asset is its people, and those who would divide us, decrease us.

Highlights of the trip were many. Discovering even more spectacular scenery in Utah was one of the
first major revelations. I was entirely too young to admire the sights when last I transited that route. This time the view was foremost on my mind. It seemed that every turn, every wind in the road revealed something new and even more impressive that what had gone before. Obviously I'm familiar with Utah's unique set of National Parks, but just the scenery along Interstate 70 certainly earns the Westernmost strip of asphalt an award as perhaps the most beautiful scenery along an interstate any where in the country (which is saying a LOT, folks, a LOT!).

Colorado River
Following the emergence from the eastern Utah desert we crossed the Colorado River for the first of perhaps a half dozen times. Crossing and recrossing rivers is a hallmark of I-70. There are multiple passes over the Colorado, the Missouri and the Ohio - though only one of the Mississippi. The interstate parallels the Colorado's path for many miles through the Rocky Mountains, jumping from one side to the other, making the river a constant companion on the winding road up the mountains.

Expensive coffee
The first of three "just stop" areas on the trip - where we just took time out from the pall mall drive to get to Maryland - came in the ski resort town of Vail. After three days of racing down highways with only a handful of ten minute stops, we decided to take a genuine break in Vail, stopping for an hour to get coffee and bagels in the resort's central plaza. There was a fun soccer (futbol) game going on with a handful of ten to thirteen year olds. We sat, eating what were already pricey snacks, until we were done and it was time to get back on the road. Destination for that day was Denver, and we still had to crest the mountains and head back down to the Mile High City.

We made our way back to the parking structure and discovered, much to our chagrine, that the hourlong stop was a full $20 in parking fees, making our little bagels and coffee the most expensive snack we've ever eaten (we think. Haven't actually done the math).

After wincing at the net cost of our stop, we headed up the mountains towards the longest tunnel on the Interstate Highway system, the Eisenhower/Johnson tunnels which mark also the highest point in the interstates. The twin tunnels are more than a mile and a half in length, crossing under the continental divide at just above 11,000'. High enough my altitude-sensitive wife got a splitting headache - relieved only after we descended down into Denver on the far side of the Rockies.

The next few days were flat. Eastern Colorado, Kansas, Missouri, Illinois and Indiana have hilly areas, but for the most part the terrain was wide open and the visibility went for miles in every direction. Gradually the tan-browns of the plains gave way to a lush greenery as we moved east. This was helped by the large storm system we were fortunate enough to taste but not experience in its full fury. By the time we made our way to Topeka the system had moved out and we were blessed by bright skies and fluffy clouds.

Given the nature of the first half of the trip...get to Annapolis with some haste...we didn't get a chance to do much exploring. The second half of our voyage, starting a little later today, will enable us to play around a bit more to the extent we were discussing some serious re-planning of the latter part of the drive as we head into West Texas in a few days time. More about that as we refine the plans.

Continuing the review, we left St Louis and headed for Cincinnati via Louisville, Kentucky. Time-wise it made only a little difference, but enabled us to drive through the Kentucky countryside to look for horses and whiskey. We found a wonderful distillery, the Kentucky Artisan Distillery in Crestwood. Wonderful stop, unfortunately right as they were closing. We had a nice conversation with a woman named Katy who kindly stayed a little longer to allow us to purchase a couple of bottles for friends back home.

We took issue with Kentucky after arriving in Covington for the night, realizing we hadn't seen a horse the entire day. It just didn't seem appropriate. The for the next few days whenever we saw horses in a pen or running through fields we noted them, wryly commenting "but it's not Kentucky".

Save for witnessing and assisting with an automobile crash in Ohio, the next day was pretty quiet. The path was kind of amusing in that we left our hotel in Kentucky and crossed immediately into Ohio. Then passed from Ohio into a sliver of West Virginia, into Pennsylvania, back into West Virginia, into Maryland, and back into West Virginia for the night. It's a slightly confusing set of state boundaries, dating back to West Virginia's secession from Virginia during the lead up to the Civil War.

Harpers Ferry

Last Friday we made the final couple of hours on the road as we crossed Maryland into the familiar environs of Annapolis, a city I regard as my East Coast home.

But as of today, we're headed away for perhaps the last time. In about an hour we start the second half, heading down across Virginia, tickling Tennessee and stopping for the next few nights in Asheville, North Carolina. Hoping the weather holds.

Follow the Thumbnail Traveler Twitter and Instagram feeds for updates throughout the day, and I'll post a recap tomorrow morning.

On to round two.

We made Harpers Ferry in eight hours and stayed at a pleasant bed and breakfast. As I stated above, I'll cover this stop in more detail in a later column.

On the Road Again

Friday, August 11, 2017

THE GRAND TOUR - Day Six Entry Delayed


(Heading into Annapolis today!)

Thursday, August 10, 2017

THE GRAND TOUR - Day 5 - St Louis to Cincinnati - 360 miles, 6 hrs

I had more or less expected this. A day with little to report.

Day 5 was pretty much getting from point A to point Z with little in the way of fuss or muss in the middle. We zoomed along the interstates without much ado, passing across Illinois and Indiana farmland for the most part. Then, crossing the Ohio river for the first time we rocketed past Louisville and up to Cincinnati for a night in Covington - across the Ohio from Cincinnati itself.

Breakfast was in a Cracker Barrel, a regional casual dining chain familiar to people in the central United States.  I enjoyed a wonderful cinnamon apple oatmeal, which was perfect for my morning wants.

The drive was beautiful, and as we approached the eastern side of Indiana the land began to become more hilly and forested. A couple of rest areas kept us from being too stiff.

We did have a nice little side-trip, though only a short one. We saw signs for "Kentucky's Artisan Distillery", which looked promising. We headed off the highway to investigate, arriving just as the hostess, at the tasting room was shutting off the lights. Katy. Being a Kentuckian she graciously said we could look around quickly, and she would reopen the register if we wanted to make a purchase. Naturally we did, so spent a few minutes talking to her about the distillery as she worked to ring up our two bottles of bourbon - the specific bottling of which is apparently only available at the distillery. There were other bottles and types, of course, but these were of a limited set.

After the pleasantries we left Katy to finish her day and resumed our travel. In a little over an hour we

found ourselves enmeshed in Cincinnati construction traffic, finally winding our way down into Covington. The hotel, appropriately named The Hotel Covington, was a delightful surprise.

After checking in at the desk we admired the very trendy looking lobby, noting an outdoor seating area and very nicely appointed bar. A few minutes in the room to freshen up we headed down for what we both agree  was the most pleasant meal of the trip so far, at Coppin's at the Covington.

A few more pictures below, but as noted, not a terribly eventful day. And sometimes that's exactly what you need.


Wednesday, August 9, 2017

LONG BEACH TO ANNAPOLIS AND BACK! Day 4 - 311 miles, 5 hrs

For the last three days we've been rocketing across the country, stopping briefly for photo opportunities and meals. Pretty much the sole exception to this was our hourlong (and very expensive) stop in Vail, Colorado.

Yesterday we decided to slow it down a bit. We were more than 1500 miles to our goal, and are ahead of schedule, so the next few days will be less intense and time-consuming.
Starting our morning in Topeka, Kansas - a charming little city which is the capital of Kansas - we

ate a pleasant breakfast featuring a waiter who needs to call Central Casting immediately. The man is perfect as the town sheriff, and likely descended from one (though we didn't ask). Lanky of build, a strong energy, and slight western drawl. Pleasant as all get out, but there was an aspect to the man that suggested he was in charge. A genuine and really good person to have met. (The hotel, a Ramada, was quite nice, but the highlight was the Sheriff. He made our morning.)

We took off, stopping for gasoline and a short side-trip to the nearby Walgreen's, we hit I-70 headed east toward St Louis.

The countryside was much greener than the previous landscapes, due partially to the intense storms which had blown through. Fortunately the weather seemed to have gone on ahead without us, and I was thankful to be driving in bright sunshine.

Before too long the skyline of Kansas City emerged fom the hilltops, and as we approached the downtown the traffic got a little more jammed. Rush hour, though - as an Angeleno - it wasn't much of a problem. The downtown slot was a bit confusing, but we managed. I am surprised at the size of the downtown district. I've been through KC before, but never to the downtown area. Much larger and dramatic than expected.

Directly east of downtown we crossed into Missouri. Not much changed in the landscaping, and the
effect was pretty much the reverse of our approach to KC. Gradually the surroundings became rural again, and green.

The drive was ineventful from that point, but the shortness of the day allowed us a wonderful little side-trip to one of the regional wineries, Le Bourgeois. What initially attracted our attention was the bistro, for lunch. Upon entering the tasting room, however, we were informed the bistro was closed on Mondays and Tuesdays, but something called the "A-Frame" was open for sandwiches. And, more importantly, it sported a serene view of the Missouri River. So we trundled up a mile or so to the vineyards, turned left and followed a steep road into the woods to find the "A-Frame".

It is, to be short, beautiful. The A-frame structure at the bottom of the road is itself the highest point for a series of wooden decks overlooking the forest and the Missouri River. Far off in the distance is the highway, but the sound of it is mild compared to the sounds of the forest. When we arrived we were among maybe six visitors, each having essentially their own deck for solitude. (Later arrivals swelled this considerably, and we eventually left when a group of six arrived on our deck and kept their conversation going...)

Reluctantly we returned to the road, but not without stopping briefly in the tasting room for some samples. No insult intended, but the wines produced are reasonable table wines and a little overpriced for their quality - but I'm delighted to see a vibrant member of the wine industry plying their trade in Missouri.

Given my tasting, my wife took over driving duties and saw us safely into St Louis. The drive in was much more heavily trafficked than any city since Las Vegas (despite Denver's best efforts), but we arrived safely at the hotel, a comparatively luxurious Hyatt directly adjacent the famous Gateway Arch and Mississippi River.
Following a short rest in the hotel we traipsed across -- having to divert around a major construction project -- to ride up into the Arch for a brief stay, followed by the park store and a decent movie about the construction. Warning: the movie is best viewed after visiting the top. Some of the dizzying views of the construction will make even the most solid height-tolerant person an aspiring acrophobe.

Today we head out on our first major diversion from the intended path. Tonight's original target was Lexington, Kentucky, but we're diverting up to Cincinnati instead. We'll still cross into Kentucky via Louisville and stop for lunch and maybe something interesting...but after tonight's restful night the bigger city beckons.

Watch the Twitter and Instagram feeds for multiple updates during the day.

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

LONG BEACH TO ANNAPOLIS AND BACK! Day 3: 540 miles, 9 hrs

Denver to Topeka.

Monday morning we awoke...well, that's not quite right. We'd been up practically all night as a result of facing a commuter rail line that apparently runs overnight. Every half hour or so our sleep was disturbed by the passing of the one the trains, which, as a result of it crossing a major intersection, blew its horn repeatedly.

Exhausted, we packed our gear and headed down to the lobby with the expectation of hitting the road and getting some breakfast once we were out of town. The desk agent at the Doubletree was upset to hear of our night, explaining that the hotel had repeatedly complained to the transit agency, but apparently to no avail.

She offered extra Hilton points and a free breakfast at the restaurant as a gesture of concern. Not being completely asleep we gratefully accepted both. It doesn't make up for the lost sleep, but Hilton responsiveness once again proved why they're one of my favorite chains.

We hit the road around 8:30 - later than planned, but without the need for a stop to eat - and immediately encountered Denver Monday morning traffic. Our hope had been to be far enough east of the city proper to escape it, but best laid plans and all that...

Within  a few miles the traffic thinned and we were off across a soggy and flat landscape. Nothing ahead of us but miles as they say. Eastern Colorado and western Kansas are, indeed, as flat as their reputations suggest. And, unlike Utah, which still gets extra brownie points from me for having an 80 mile per hour speed limit - you're restricted to 75 mph. Cheating you can get that up to 79 or so without getting the attention of the local highway patrol.

The miles rolled by and other than a handful of stops at various rest areas not a lot happened. The rain became intense for ten minutes or so, recalling a few other drives through Tornado Alley. I kept my eyes on the road AND the horizon, figuring the other drivers would probably alert me to any problems through their own actions. (Having California plates on our car I figured NOBODY would look to me for help spotting a tornado...)

The miles curled by and gradually the rain lessened until stopping altogether. Passing into Kansas

was uneventful. The road meandered over the landscape slightly, though the majority of the time it was straight. We attracted the attention of a highway patrolman who - likely seeing the Cal plates - paced us for a mile or so in my blind spot. Apparently unhappy we were obeying the laws he gunned his engine and roared ahead to ostensibly handle something down the road. Sorry to have disappointed you, officer.

(As much as I hate to say it, in certain states having California plates is a liability. They can get you unwanted attention if you do something to bring attention to yourself. I have stories but will save those for another time.)

We stopped in Hayes, Kansas for lunch at a terrific place called Thirsty's Brew Pub and Grill. It's massive inside, divided up into a variety of areas - sports bar, restaurant, exhibition room, event rooms and main stage. Despite its size, it being Monday we at one point were the sole customers in the place. Disconcerting but the very, very nice waitress (Mackenzie) told us the evenings and weekends it was wall-to-wall bodies. We were attracted to the formal stage in the middle room - yes, there were several large rooms in this place - with a piano and sign that read "The Jazz Cafe". But overall we were truly enjoying the ambience, Mackenzie's friendliness, and the food.

She filled us in on the history of the place and some of the new owner's plans for the future. It's a very cool spot and great for live music. Plus, our sandwiches were good enough we both decided they were the best meal of the trip so far.

Leaving Hayes we poured it on. The lunch was a late one, and we still had some three hours to get to Topeka for the evening. In Salina we switched driving, with my wife taking the wheel. This enabled me to rest, and make a series of posts to Instagram and Facebook. The countryside became less flat and more lightly rolling hills, getting greener and more forested along the way.

Topeka eventually arrived, and we piled out of the car, exhausted. The hotel, a Ramada, is quite nice and the staff quite friendly. The room is comfortable, but we both noticed the sound of a train horn...this...may be a problem...

(More tomorrow.)

Monday, August 7, 2017

LONG BEACH TO ANNAPOLIS AND BACK! Day 2: 542 miles, 9 hrs

Beaver, Utah to Denver.

It was a very long day, hence the upload this morning (Monday) versus the intended last night.

We began the day with a pleasant breakfast at the hotel in Beaver. It was your typical hotel "free breakfast" fare, with scrambled eggs, sausage patties (which are quite flat and suspiciously uniform), hash browns as the "warm" breakfast, along with a variety of toasts, bagels, cereals and the like. Coffee and juices, of course.

Make it a double?
Particularly coffee. I found myself in need of several cups, knowing full well we'd be on the open road and away from facilities for a good chunk of the day.

We left the Best Western at around 8:30, just about on schedule. Heading up Interstate 15 we transtioned to Interstate 70 a half hour or so into the drive. The morning sunlight and partial clouds gave some beautful lighting to the central Utah valley, but almost as soon as we started east the terrain changed.

Spotted Wolf Canyon
Utah, I will say without too much fear of contradiction, is blessed with a stunning landscape. Each curve in the highway inevitably leads to another gasp as you encounter a spectacular vista of one sort or another. I would suggest that the portion of Interstate 70 between the I15 cutoff and the beginnings of the Utah desert is perhaps the most spectacular stretch of asphalt in the interstate highway system. (And for our readers who have never driven the system, that's saying quite a bit. There are staggeringly beautiful stretches of highway through New Mexico, California, Colorado - and others I'm sure will be screamed at the screens of offended travelers in other states).

I will, at some point, attempt to do it justice in a future column, but the drive was jawdropping, as you can make our in just one vista to the right. This is the overlook down through Spotted Wolf Canyon (above left). It's a divide through which the interstate feeds like a wandering python.

Once we emerged from the mountainous wonderland, the desert floor beckoned. We stopped briefly Live in L.A.) and counted the miles until we passed into Colorado.
in Green River for a bio break and water, then headed back out across the eastern Utah desert. It's a lovely drive, and the temperatures were kept relatively cool by the previously mentioned cloud cover, and a seasonal haze which obscured distant landmarks. We simply kicked back, popped in some Rippingtons (

After a stop for lunch in Grand Junction the highway heads up into the Rockies, but not uuntil after passing a bunch of vineyards off to the south. I'd known they produce wines in Colorado, but hadn't internalized it - seeing the large nature of some of the operations was bit of a surprise. However, due to the nature of a cross-country drive it's not a good idea to do much wine tasting. I chalked this up to "future reference" and watched them disappear in the rear-view.

The Colorado...in Colorado
The Rockies get off to a gentle start, but clearly you are mountainous terrain. The slope is gradual in some parts an steeper in others, with large open meadowlands interspersed. Our altitude kept on a general upward direction and you could begin to feel the effects of the height. A light dizziness - nothing serious - and the feeling of breathing just a touch more deeply.

One of the rarely mentioned aspects of this portion of the drive is that the Colorado River parallels the highway - or, more accurately, the other way around. In some of the deeper grooves the river takes on a whitewater flow, whereas at others it might be a gentle float. And, as expected, there were dozens of rafters, fishermen and others willing to play. We pulled over at one point into one of the several rest stops to wander around and take a few shots of the river. It was both a great way to stretch the legs, and a pleasant respite from the heavily trafficked scramble up the hill.

A second stop, more extended than the first, came in Vail. Considered to be one of the premiere ski
Very expensive coffee
resorts in the world, Vail is a lovely little resort with shopping, restaurants and other activities, and it's directly off the interstate at 8000', meaning it's pretty convenient for a quick drop-by. We spent an hour or so sitting and watching some school-aged children playing soccer in the main square's play area, sipping at lattes and munching a couple of bagels. (Just an hour of parking cost a whopping $20, making the lattes and bagels the most expensive snack ever.)

From Vail it's a steep ascent to the summit - there are two, in fact. The first, at roughly 10,000' is misleading. The highway continues to ascend to the cities of Frisco and Silverthorne, and from there it's a steep grade up to the Eisenhower/Johnson Tunnels at 11,158', a statistic which worried us greatly considering my wife's well-documented altitude sickness. (She passed out on Mt Haleakala in Hawaii. At that's only 10,032'.) Other than a splitting headache, which receded quickly once we achieved lower elevations down the far side of the tunnel, she reports no lasting ill effects. I am now for-sworn to much lower altitudes for the remainder of the trip.

The rush down the hill, despite encountering weekend homeward-bound traffic, was eventless, and finally checked into our hotel at around7pm, retiring for a light dinner and what was, in the end, a very disappointing sleep - the hotel, a Doubletree, was among the loudest I have ever encountered between a noisy ice machine, noisy neighbors and the constant horn-blowing of a light-rail train as it passed the hotel only a few dozen yards away.

(All of which was finished off with a nice Ultimat Martini, of course...)

Today we're off to Topeka. Follow along of Twitter and Instagram for regular updates....

Saturday, August 5, 2017

LONG BEACH TO ANNAPOLIS, AND BACK!: Day 1, 8 hours, 504 miles

 We departed Long Beach at around 9:30am, a little later than expected. The weather was excellent but quite warm. Already 83F.

Traffic was light - not real delays until we hit Las Vegas.

 The first major transition was onto Interstate 15 as it wove up into the Cajon Pass. The pass is a miles-long gouge through the San Bernardino Mountains, carved by the infamous San Andreas Fault.

It is here that the North American and Pacific tectonic plates are locked together, storing energy for a future megaquake that is predicted for the region.
 Safely past the fault, we stopped for a brief time at Peggy Sue's Diner, just north of Barstow. It's a quaint little place and well worth the stop.
 The aptly named Devil's Playground.

This is an area of the Mojave Desert which takes few prisoners and is as stark and forbidding as the name suggests.

As long as you don't leave the interstate you'll be fine.
 Entering Nevada. Our first state border.
 The Las Vegas Strip. Southern end.

Typically this would be our final stop, but needs we must push on. It's probably the first time since college when I haven't stopped for even a single night.
 The vast and empty esert north of Las Vegas, nearing the Arizona border.
 We stopped for leg-stretching next to the Virgin River, in the Virgin River Canyon.

The rain from a wet season is wtill in runoff, and the river was a dark and swirling brown shade as it tumbled down the canyon.
Final stop. We're in Beaver, Utah. It's a very small town with a long history, including as the birthplace for Butch Cassidy.

Even on a Saturday night, the streets rolled up around 7pm, and we went back to the room to rest for tomorrow's drive to Denver. Another 8 hour sint, through the heart of the Rocky Mountains.

Hoping the weather holds.