Updated: Jul 15
June 13, 2013 - Leaving New York
Lola and I had been on the road officially for two weeks when we packed our suitcases in our New York hotel room and prepared for our return trip across the continent. Four days in the city whet our appetites just enough to leave us with a longing for more and a solemn pledge to return again soon to pick up the thread of fun and exploration in this exciting place. But for now, we had to turn our attention to mapping out a route home. We decided that the next leg of our journey together would focus on a driving tour of the Atlantic Coast south of New York. The plan was to go as far as Virginia Beach before pointing our car westward. First stop on the route would be Atlantic City, New Jersey.
That morning, we had our last meal in New York at Bagel Talk on Amsterdam. After springing my car out of the parking garage, I pulled around to the front of the hotel to load up our luggage. The weather had one last capricious card to play that morning. Just as I pulled up, the clouds unleashed their cargo and doused us in curtains of rain. In the few seconds it took us to load our luggage into the car, we were drenched to the bone. Somehow, it made me feel less bad about leaving the city with such awful weather in play.
We took the West Side Highway down toward the tip of the island, mostly to avoid traffic, but made a brief stop at the corner of 1st Avenue and 1st Street, the absolute starting point for the numbered system of avenues and streets that spread out over most of the island.
Then it was back to West End Avenue, and through the Battery-Brooklyn Tunnel (now known as the Hugh L. Carey Tunnel). In 2013, a toll of $7.50 was collected on the other end when we emerged in Brooklyn. We connected with Interstate 278 in Brooklyn and followed it to the 2.6-mile-long Verrazzano-Narrows Bridge that links Staten Island with the rest of the city. It was my first ever crossing of the bridge and first ever visit to Staten Island. The bridge toll was $15 which I guess is more or less on par with the toll to cross the George Washington bridge. The price to leave New York: $22.50.
On the Boardwalk in Atlantic City
On the far side of Staten Island, you cross another shorter bridge into New Jersey. We hopped on the New Jersey Turnpike, and then onto the Garden State Parkway (another toll road) where we would be conducted to Atlantic City which is about a two-hour drive from New York, roughly three-quarters of the way down the Jersey Shore. Lola and I went online a few days before and reserved a room at the Taj Mahal -- mostly because of the two factors that were most important to us -- location and price. At $69/night, it was a bargain. Side note: the hotel and casino closed the following year, and were demolished in a controlled implosion in February of this year.
There were problems with the room. The faucets turned the wrong direction and the GFCI outlets were upside down. The chairs were so old that when you sat in them, you could feel the wood frame digging into your leg through the thin fabric and paltry cushioning. The shower curtain wasn’t completely attached to the rod. They charged $5 to park in their garage as guests of the hotel (most casino hotels have no charge for parking), and $11 for wi-fi access, which we declined. The good news was, we were staying for just one night.
After checking in, we wandered down the Boardwalk to Bally’s to play slots for a little while. The Boardwalk is the longest and oldest in the world. Popularized in cinema and song, it is more than just a means for moving up and down the beach; it is a grand promenade that connects casinos and hotels and restaurants and shops and confectioners and arcades and, of course, access to the beach. If you'd prefer not to walk from one end to the other (a distance of about four miles), you can hop on a tram for a small fee to shorten the trip. After a little slot play at Bally's, Lola and I headed back up the Boardwalk. We were only a minute or two into our walk when a powerful electrical storm descended on us, and we were caught out in the open with just one umbrella. We ducked into James’ Candy Company and loaded up on saltwater taffy. The peppermint taffy is an unequivocal must-purchase if you are there.
June 14, 2013 - A Drive Down the Delmarva Peninsula
Before leaving Atlantic City, Lola and I decided to try our luck at Caesars. It was a good decision as we made out better there than at other casinos the night before. Our next stop would be Philadelphia -- about an hour away. This was my first visit to the City of Brotherly Love. It seemed remarkable to me that, out of all the travels I’d done throughout the United States over the years, my journeys never took me through Philadelphia. We didn’t have a lot of time to explore. We merely zipped through downtown all the while snapping pictures from a moving vehicle -- our patented drive-by method of touring. Philadelphia is definitely a city I would love to return to and spend more time exploring.
Our travels that day took us further south along I-95. Eventually, we crossed into Delaware. We stopped in Wilmington for lunch and a few pictures of the city. From Wilmington, we connected with U.S. 13 and headed further south into the Delmarva Peninsula and right through Dover, the state capital. At Dover, we cut over to S.R. 1 and wound up in the cheerful oceanside community of Rehoboth Beach where we found a swarm of tourists strolling up and down the lovely coastal boardwalk. It was stocked with the usual fare of beach community enterprises: gift shops, saltwater taffy vendors, fast food counters, and most importantly for Lola, businesses that sold souvenir lapel pins.
Moving further south, we soon crossed into Maryland and found ourselves driving through Ocean City, a place where high-rise condominiums, hotels and vacation rentals march in a nearly unbroken line facing the sea for miles along the east side of the highway. The amount of Maryland you see heading south through Delmarva is very small -- a total of about 50 miles from end to end. In order to maintain our southbound momentum, we had to cut over to U.S. 113 at Ocean City. As you turn onto U.S. 50 to cut over, you are reminded that Sacramento, California is a mere 3,073 miles down the road.
Before long, we crossed into Virginia. We had driven in five different states that day. In the town of Onley (pronounced “only”), we found a lovely Quality Inn where we got a well-priced room for $81/night. It was very comfortable and clean. Dinner was takeout from a Chinese buffet next door, and as I recall, we overindulged.
June 15, 2013 - From Coastal to Appalachian Virginia
This was the day that Lola and I would get to cross the engineering marvel of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel -- a 17.6-mile span that connects the Delmarva Peninsula with the Hampton Roads metropolitan area. (The Hampton Roads area includes the cities of Virginia Beach, Chesapeake, Hampton, Newport News, Norfolk, Portsmouth, and Suffolk.) The Bridge-Tunnel is a total of three bridges and two tunnels and costs the driver just $14 to make the crossing (it was $12 in 2013).
Just before crossing, we stopped at the Chesapeake Bay Bridge Scenic Overview at the southern tip of Delmarva to get shots of the bridge from the west side.
One of the best experiences of driving across the Bridge-Tunnel is the illusion that you are actually just driving out into the middle of the ocean. The distance from one end to the other is so great that you cannot see land on the other side at the start of your journey. About halfway across the span, there is a comfort station where we found a gift shop, a bathroom and a restaurant.
When we set out on the first span, one of us commented that it was unlikely we would be seeing any roadkill on the bridge. We were still keeping a running tally but fully expected a break for the next 20 miles or so. And then, smack in the middle of one of the spans, we spotted a dead seagull lying on the side of the road, proving that no stretch of highway, no matter how inaccessible, is safe for Mother Nature’s creatures.
Once on the other side of the bridge, we made a short visit to Virginia Beach and took our time driving along the Atlantic coast until we arrived at the beginning of Interstate 60. That was the point that marked our furthest migration south, and the turning point on our return trip westward. Leaving the Hampton Roads area on Interstate 60 wasn’t as easy as we had hoped. There was a backup on the freeway of at least 10 miles. Whether it was because of an accident or because of heavy tourist traffic heading to Yorktown and Jamestown, we couldn't quite tell. Unfortunately, time did not permit us to stop and explore those historic landmarks, even more so when you factor in the delay on the interstate. We had to press on to Richmond, the capital city of Virginia.
We arrived just after noon and stopped at an Arby’s for lunch. Fast food meant short lunch and soon, we were driving to the capitol building. We got some good pictures of the capitol complex.
There were a lot of older, historic buildings and neighborhoods in Richmond, and sadly we were on a tight schedule that day and had little time to explore. We wasted no time getting back on the freeway towards Charlottesville. What we were trying to accommodate that day by shortening visits elsewhere was Monticello. We both really wanted to tour the park and see Thomas Jefferson's house. We arrived at the Monticello Visitor's Center around 2:30 and found that there was a two- to three-hour wait just to take the tram up to the house. That wouldn't leave much time for the tour itself. We were hoping to put a lot more mileage behind us before the end of the day, so we decided to visit the gift shop instead and continue on our way. Another road trip, perhaps.
From Charlottesville, we still had a long drive to get to our destination for the day -- Bristol, Virginia. Bristol is one of those unique cities, like Texarkana, that is divided right down the center by a state line. Half of the city is in Virginia while the other half is in Tennessee.
We arrived in Bristol fairly late. We drove to the Tennessee side but couldn’t find a hotel. After a quick drive along State Street where the state line runs down the middle of the road, we crossed back into Virginia and found a Super 8 just off the interstate. We were tired after a long day of driving and desperate to find a room to collapse in. Turns out, we were fortunate to get a room at all. There was a drag race event going on locally and most of the hotels were booked up. Unfortunately for us, the ones that were available were a bit sketchier, and more run down. Even though the room rate we got was fairly reasonable under the circumstances ($80), the hotel was shabby and ramshackle. In the middle of the main hallway, just past the main office, there was an enormous stain on the carpet that we had to walk around. It looked as if someone had brought their bike inside the hotel to change the oil. But, you make do where you have to. The room, though pretty worn, served its purpose and provided us with shelter for the night.
We sprang for a nicer meal to balance out the hotel situation. There was an Olive Garden a few miles away. One of our best memories of that evening was the drive back to the hotel. On the way, we spotted a couple of low riders coming down the highway. They got onto the freeway with us. One of the cars had its tail end down so low that it was dragging along the asphalt, generating a fountain of sparks in its wake. The driver soon realized what was happening; the back end suddenly lifted itself and the fireworks display came to an abrupt conclusion.
June 16, 2013 - Sprinting Across Kentucky to Cross the Mississippi
The next day we started out on U.S. 58 through the remaining portion of far-western Virginia. At some point along the narrow, winding highway, as we were climbing up through the Appalachians, we came around a corner, and suddenly, there was a large white log lying in the middle of the road, in the opposite lane. At first, we thought the dog was dead, but when we got closer, it lifted its head lazily to observe us as we drove by. It became clear to us that it was just sunning itself, probably lying on the asphalt for warmth.
The scenery in western Virginia is absolutely stunning. At the extreme western point of Virginia you'll arrive at the famous Cumberland Gap where Tennessee, Virginia and Kentucky all come together. It is one of three natural breaks in the Appalachian Mountain range and served as a gateway for Native Americans who used it as a footpath to traverse the Cumberland Mountains.
It is also where you can visit Cumberland Gap National Historic Park. Geologists believe that a meteor 100 meters in diameter struck the area 300 million years ago. Lola and I sort of sped right through it. When you come out of Virginia, you enter Tennessee. We turned north onto U.S. 25E and immediately passed through a tunnel. Once out on the other side, we were in Kentucky. Our passage through Tennessee was extremely brief -- lasting for about a minute.
The drive through Kentucky was pretty, and for the most part, uneventful. We followed the Cumberland Parkway most of the way across the state.
The standout memory for both of us on that drive came at lunchtime when we stopped in Glasgow, Kentucky for lunch at a Subway. The young man behind the counter made up our sandwiches. I had mentioned offhand that we were going to be adding beverages to the order. When he gave me the total, it seemed too small to include both the sandwiches and the drinks, so I asked him where I would pay for the drinks (the Subway was sharing a beverage station with a gas station, so I thought it could be jointly owned and operated). The young man didn’t seem to understand my question, so I asked him again where I needed to go to pay for the drink. His response was one I’ll never forget, and when I share this, I mean no disrespect to those who use this phrase in their everyday speech. He simply replied, “You done did.” To my coddled Northwest ear, it was an alien turn of phrase. That was the day of my first direct interaction with the Kentucky vernacular.
On our way west through Kentucky, we passed through Bowling Green and Paducah, then crossed the Ohio River into Cairo, Illinois. Cairo (pron. KEHR oh) is an interesting place with a turbulent past, resting at the southernmost tip of Illinois, at the confluence of the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers. It was once a prosperous community of 15,000 residents, but when the two bridges south of downtown were constructed in the 1930s, traffic was diverted from the center of town, and in the 1960s, the construction of Interstate 57 dealt the city another blow when it bypassed the town to the west. In the late 1960s, racial tensions and violence led to more residents leaving. Today, Cairo has a population of just over 2,000.
When you cross into Cairo from Kentucky, within a thousand feet, you arrive at the second bridge that crosses the Mississippi River and dumps you out into Missouri. We were in Illinois for all of three minutes. Here is the approach from the Kentucky side (you can see the bridge to Missouri in the distance):
The bridge over the Mississippi:
On the Missouri side, we aimed our car for the interstate where we were sure to find lots of hotels. Specifically, we were looking for one with laundry facilities. A phone call led us to the Holiday Inn Express in Sikeston. The rate was excellent at $79/night, and the room was very nice — worlds better than the room we slept in the night before.
People often use the expression "east of the Mississippi" or "west of the Mississippi" to loosely refer to either half of the United States. Lola and I had driven, in just two days, from the Atlantic Coast to the western half of the country, or more accurately, sprinted there, stopping to rest just 10 miles over the unofficial border that defines the two halves of the United States.
Next Time on "Road Trip 2013" ... In the next installment, I'll wrap up our final days on the road where we had a close encounter with an angry old man in a sundress and flipflops. Until then, dear travelers, may all your journeys be safe and rich in experience!