Road Trip to Tuscon

At my job, everyone can carry only 40 hours of vacation over from one year to the next. The cap used to be much higher, but since the economy crashed into a mountain in 2008, reducing everyone’s vacation carryover keeps our balance sheet looking nice & spiffy. This meant I had to take a week off of work, so I chose the last week of December, giving me uninterrupted vacation time from Dec 23rd – January 3rd. Pretty nice if I say so myself.

I decided to go and visit a high school friend of mine who now lives in Tuscon, AZ. From what I’d heard it seemed like a cool enough place, but my main interest was in seeing her and catching up with her life. We were very good friends in HS and saw each other a bit in college even though we were ~4 hours apart. Since I’d last seen her (sometime around 2002) she’d moved from DC to Tuscon and acquired a family, including two kids (girls, ages six and four).

I also wanted to do a road trip … I hadn’t done a big long one since I drove from Richmond to Austin over six years ago. Visiting Tuscon satisfied all my conditions. I contacted her on Facebook, approved the visit, and off I went!

The drive to Tuscon is roughly 890 miles. Google puts it at over 14 hours. I was a little stressed out about it so I planned far in advance, downloading numerous podcasts, checking out some audiobooks from the library, and stocking up on snacks. I even recorded a demo mix the night before I left so I’d have some new music to listen to. I got an oil change. On the advice of a co-worker who went to NM state, I reserved a hotel room in Las Cruces, NM so I’d have a defined stopping point after about 10 hours of driving.

The morning of the 23rd I woke up bright (well, it wasn’t really bright out) and early at 6 AM, showered, dressed, filled up on gas, ate breakfast at a Whataburger, and was on the road by 6:30 or so. The route is pretty simple: from Austin you take 290 west to I-10 west.

Almost immediately I ran into trouble: my “engine oil maintenance” light came on as soon as I hit I-10. This was distressing to say the least. Car trouble is the #1 thing I was worried about. Luckily I was near a small town (can’t remember the name) that advertised a mechanic, which turned out to be a guy with a bunch of tools on his truck who waits in a shop that adjoins a restaurant. He suggested that before he charged me $40 to run the codes on my car that I check my oil level. I explained that I’d just gotten my oil changed a few days prior, but he said he’d seen some shoddy work done. So I checked the oil level, but it was normal. He then ran the codes … and said “Well it’s just saying you need to change your oil.” The realization hit me like a thunderbolt — my car has this feature where you can program in a mileage at which it will remind you that you need an oil change. This is what happened! The guys at Jiffy Lube didn’t reset this number, so my car was like “hey, you told me to tell you about an oil change at such-and-such a mileage — here you are!”

I breathed a huge sigh of relief as this meant the problem was not really a problem at all. I thanked him profusely, paid the $40, and was on my merry way!

The rest of the drive to Las Cruces passed without incident. The drive through West Texas is boring, for sure, but I was never in danger of falling asleep. For one thing, there are mountains — lots of ’em! Those made the drive a little more interesting as I haven’t been around mountains in a long time — since late 2008 when some friends and I drove from Lhasa to Mt. Everest in Tibet. The landscape of West Texas seemed very similar to West Tibet — flat and barren, covered with scrubby grass and bushes, and peppered with mountains.

I hit Las Cruces around 4 PM, I think, MST. I didn’t have much to do in town so I ate dinner at a place called Farley’s, watched some TV, and bummed around a Barnes & Noble reading a photography magazine from the UK.

I hit the road around 11 AM the next morning and arrived in Tuscon, at my friend’s front door, about exactly when I’d planned: 3 PM on Christmas Eve. Yay!

My friend and her boyfriend had generously offered me their guest bedroom for the week, so I dragged all my stuff in from the car. Then we commenced to catching up and reminiscing about high school, college, the times in between & after, people we knew, etc. I also was introduced to her two daughters as the four of us we began making sugar cookies for Christmas and New Year’s Eve:

Around dinnertime her boyfriend arrived home carrying the pizzas we’d asked him to get, so I met him. And all was well. I was wiped out after my drive so I think I went to bed around 9 PM or so, if I recall correctly (and I might not).

Christmas morning was nice. I think we all were up around 8 or 8:30. When I woke up, half the presents were already open so I stumbled into a scene of gifts being torn open. I grabbed my camera and started taking some pictures:

On the advice of my friend, I’d gotten the kids a DVD of My Neighbor Totoro — their favorite movie but one which they didn’t own. I think they liked it as they watched it like 3-4 times over the rest of my visit, haha.

Then it was off to their family’s house for brunch — waffles, eggs, pound cake, fruit salad, bacon, etc. I met several members of the extended family, which was nice, and found out that we know the same person in Austin. We returned to the house in the afternoon, but it was already almost time for another trip — this time up into the foothills of the Catalina mountains for a visit to the same family members, but at a different house. And more Christmas presents! By the end of the day I was stuffed from all the food and had probably taken about a zillion pictures 😉

I think it was my first real Christmas experience. I’m Jewish, so I don’t do much celebrating on that particular day. Usually I go see a movie and eat Chinese food, either with my parents (when I was growing up) or with friends now that I’m in Austin.

The rest of the visit was amazing. I was particularly happy to get a lot of one-on-one time with my friend for the purposes of catching up and relaxing. I also grew to know her boyfriend and their children, which was a big thrill for me. Because I was staying in the guest bedroom, I’d wake up around 9 or so to the sounds of the kids playing and having breakfast and their parents alternating between attending to them and cleaning up and doing their own thing. We’d make coffee and sit and chat for awhile before getting on with the day’s activities. I really felt like a family member. It was very pleasant.

I don’t have the energy to write out in detail what I did for the rest of the visit, so I’ll just summarize:

  • Errands and exploring trips (to neighborhoods such as Barrio Viejo, where my friend used to live) around Tuscon
  • A visit to the Center for Creative Photography, which Ansel Adams co-founded
  • A nighttime bike ride through Tuscon to eat dinner at Wilko, and returning home to watch Super Size Me on Netflix (a movie which made me feel very good about my dinner choice that evening)
  • An afternoon/evening at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, which was fascinating
  • A Boxing Day house party that included a campfire and s’mores, plus great snacks and a pizza
  • Going to PetCo to buy pet mice (named Fluffers and Fluffernutters) for the kids and the ensuing petting frenzy that followed
  • A drive down some rural, scenic highways to visit Bisbee, this little artist town in the mountains near the Mexico border
  • Some other stuff that I’m probably forgetting

Almost as soon as I got to AZ I decided that I’d do the return drive in one long stint. So on the morning of Wed. Dec 29th, I woke up at 5 AM, had coffee, and lit out for home. Again, the drive was uneventful. I still had some leftover snacks from the trip out there and tons of podcasts queued up. I stopped only for gas and to take a leak, and to wolf down a quick meal at a Whataburger in Las Cruces.

Here’s a pic I took as the sun rose in front of me. I stopped on the highway and looked north.

The tripmeter read 889 miles and I calculated the time as 13.5 hours on the road, for an average of 65 MPH. That sounds low for highway driving but you have to remember all the times I stopped. I’d guess my stops totaled about an hour, hour and a half at most, which is obviously time spent going 0 MPH. Then there’s the slowing down, driving on small country roads where the speed limit’s like 50 MPH for awhile, just to get to some gas stations in West Texas. So overall I think 65 MPH is pretty good. Heading back east, once you clear El Paso the speed limit rises to 80 MPH, so I put the car in cruise control at 90 MPH, feeling confident that police wouldn’t pull me over at that speed.

Speaking of police, I don’t remember seeing any highway patrol, but I did get stopped by the border patrol three times. Once, headed west on I-10, there’s a station just west of Las Cruces. The guy looked at me and just asked “Are you a US citizen?” The combination of me saying “Yes, sir” and being white was enough for him, so he waved me onward. The second stop was actually on the way back north from Bisbee, on highway 80 just north of Tombstone. That stop had police dogs on leashes, sniffing the cars as they passed. Again, it was a quick stop and we were on our way. And the last time I was stopped was on I-10 east, just east of El Paso. Again, it was a quick spot-check and wave-through. Very interesting.

Anyway, the drive back was monotonous but I didn’t have much trouble staying awake or concentrating or anything like that. I got home around 7:30 PM which gave me enough time to unload, unpack, talk with some friends, and pass out relatively early.

I’ve included several pictures in this post as per usual … check out the rest!

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