Updated: Dec 16, 2020
In 2002, I set my mind to completing my goal of visiting all 50 states. There was just one remaining then, and somehow, through all of the domestic criss-cross traveling I had done in the 12 years prior, I had missed it. That state was Arkansas. At that time, I was living in Edmonds, Washington -- a quaint waterfront suburb just 15 minutes north of Seattle and home of Rick Steves’ Europe. It was also 2,277 miles away from the Arkansas state line. I had a choice: I could either fly into Little Rock, or drive overland the entire distance from Edmonds. Naturally, I opted to make the overland drive. It would give me a chance to pick up a slew of new counties, see some National Parks along the way, and for the first time drive the entire length of Texas, from west to east. I set aside two full weeks of PTO to make the round-trip journey, and complete my goal of visiting all 50 states. I loaded up my forest green Honda Civic, county map and colored pencil set included, and set out on August 29, 2002.
Green Valley, Arizona
On the outbound portion of my journey, I wanted to make an important detour to visit a dear friend who was living in Green Valley. Her name was Joyce Haynes. She worked as a receptionist in the same law firm where I was working at the time, but she had retired a few years prior and moved from Seattle to a 55+ community in Green Valley, Arizona -- about a half hour south of Tucson. The firm kept her employed as their de facto travel agent while she was living in Arizona, and as part of my duties as a technical trainer for the firm, I was permitted to travel on business to "see" her occasionally in order to assist her in person with computer issues. It was definitely one of the perks of my job. Though we had very little in common, she and I developed a strong bond. Her health was in decline in 2002, so I made it a point of fixing Green Valley as my first destination on this trip.
Cedar Breaks National Monument
The route I planned would take me through some of the most scenic places in the American West. I was greatly looking forward to rolling through the rugged and wild landscapes of southern Utah and northern Arizona. The first part of this journey, however, was pretty banal -- interstate travel from Seattle to central Utah. It was a necessary choice to get me there as expediently as possible. I took a slight detour from I-15 onto I-70 as far as Sevier, Utah where I would leave the interstate system and continue southward along the backroads and narrower highways to pick up new counties. It was on this portion of the trip where I visited Cedar Breaks National Monument for the first time. The vistas there are something to behold. You'll see plenty of red rock if you are traveling through southern Utah. Zion, Bryce and Arches usually get top billing when it comes to natural beauty, stunning rock formations and popularity among tourists. Cedar Breaks offers a wonderful surprise to those who may have never even heard of it. It is laid out in a natural amphitheater formation, with bold cliff faces exposing the weathered strata of rock in vibrant hues of red, yellow and ochre. The entire landscape is mottled with groves of bristlecone pines, all from a dizzying height of 10,000 feet.
Northern Arizona and Sedona
My journey continued south through Kanab, Utah into Arizona along US 89 where I passed just to the north of the Grand Canyon. As I drove through Vermilion Cliffs National Monument, I spotted this amazing stone house:
I traveled that day until the sun started to go down. I made it as far as Camp Verde, Arizona, just off I-17, and got the very last room at the Comfort Inn. The next morning, September 1st, I doubled-back to explore a bit of Sedona. I had heard about its beauty and magical energy, and I wanted to see it for myself. What I found was an attractive, if not touristy, artistic community surrounded entirely by cliffs and buttes of brilliant red rock. I was hoping I might personally experience the "hum" of spiritual energy they say flows through the area, but in truth, I can only claim to have felt a sense of gratitude for having had a chance to see such natural beauty in such a unique setting. There was so much to see and explore that I felt a little rushed to be just "passing through." I got just enough of a taste of the town to make me want to come back for a longer stay later. Here's one of the more prominent rock features surrounding the town: Bell Rock.
I made my final push for Green Valley a few hours later. I stopped in Phoenix to explore the downtown and see the Arizona State Capitol Building. My photo of downtown Phoenix:
I arrived in Green Valley that afternoon and was once again reunited with my friend, Joyce.
I never knew how old Joyce was. Her age was a well-guarded secret, and I never asked her. She and I were good friends, though. She was someone who enjoyed cocktails in the late afternoon and took great pride in the Southwestern décor she furnished her comfortable home with. She loved to talk about the newest objet d'art she discovered at an antique shop or what her plans were for decorating a corner of her living space. She taught me the names of the native plants and trees and chauffeured me one day through nearby Saguaro National Park. She took me to gifts shops, art galleries and Native American roadside stands where I could pick up kokopelli sculptures and hand-painted pottery. On one visit, she and I drove south to Nogales where we parked the car, walked across the border into Mexico and did some shopping. She visited often because her medication was much cheaper there, and she could get stronger retinol cream than she could find in the States. Our outings usually ended in lunch or dinner somewhere with cocktails.
I spent three days with her, sharing meals, sharing stories and having more than a few cocktails. She was always such a generous hostess, more interested in my comfort than her own. I did not want to overstay my welcome, despite her entreaties to the contrary. On the third day, September 3rd, I was back on the road, making my way east toward New Mexico, and bidding her a fond farewell. I did not know it then, but it would be the last time I would see my dear friend. She passed away November 14, 2003.
When I left Joyce that morning, I had the worst pain in my lower back. It made driving extremely uncomfortable, and even worse when getting out of the car and walking around for the first few minutes. I was determined to see the legendary Tombstone, Arizona, no matter what, back pain or no back pain. I ended up walking around the old town for maybe 20 minutes, but that was all I could stand. I drove on further south to Bisbee near the Mexican border to see the famed copper mining town:
Later that day, I passed through the bootheel of New Mexico and reconnected with I-10 heading east. It wasn't long before I was crossing into Texas and settling in for the night in El Paso.
National Parks in Texas
People often think of Texas as being flat as an iron, featureless and devoid of topographical character, but west Texas is something completely out of step with that stereotype. To the contrary, west Texas is quite mountainous, . . . and quite desolate. There is very little to see along the arrow-straight roads aside from the sage, desert spoons, yuccas, scrub brush, cacti and occasional roadrunner. There are, however, two national parks in this part of the state. I drove directly from El Paso to Guadalupe Mountains National Park to see the highest point in Texas. Oddly, I had to pass through a quasi-border crossing-style checkpoint along the way where I was asked to state my citizenship, where I had come from and where I was going. It felt enormously invasive to me to be stopped and questioned within the borders of my own home country. Nevertheless, I arrived at my destination early in the morning:
From there, I turned south and drove to Big Bend National Park. Of the two national parks, Big Bend was by far my favorite. It is in a beautiful, pristine corner of the country that is both mountainous and saturated in Sonoran Desert flora and fauna. I actually spotted a javelina scampering across the highway on my way there. There are plenty of scenic turnouts where you can pull off the road and take in the sweeping vistas. On the other side of the park is where the Rio Grande cuts through steep canyons, separating the United States and Mexico. There is a visitor center on the north slope of the mountains that has a wonderful nature trail where there are signs along the the path identifying the plants and shrubs. This was a place where, once again, I wish I had not been just passing through. I would have loved to take more time to explore, but I was trying my best not to fall behind on my schedule.
San Antonio and Dallas
That night, I found a comfortable motel room in Fort Stockton. The next day, I was up with the sunrise and pushed further east, arriving in San Antonio fairly early in the day. It was my first visit to this quintessentially southwestern city. I was captivated by the River Walk and the canals. Although the Alamo was right there, it did not hold the same fascination for me that the River Walk did. I really enjoyed strolling the tree-lined pathways, seeing all of the outdoor cafes and restaurants and pausing here and there for a few photos to capture the moment. I found a place to stay for the night just outside of town. I returned to this city in 2015 to spend more time, to make up for the fact that I merely sampled it in 2002.
The next day, September 6th, I hopped onto I-35 northbound and was in the state capital of Austin before long. I did not linger there, however. I continued on my way to Dallas, which is where I ended up spending the night. It had been a long day of driving. I made it a point of visiting Dealey Plaza before retiring for the day.
The Arkansas State Line
From Dallas, it isn't a very long trip to Texarkana, and the Arkansas State Line. As I drew closer to the border, my heart began to race with the excitement of knowing that I was soon to complete my goal of visiting all 50 states. Sometime around noon, on September 8, 2002, I rolled into Texarkana on the Texas side, and slowly made my way toward the center of town where the state line bisects the city in two. I was intentionally building up a little suspense for the sake of this unique experience. I wanted to remember the moment when I finished all 50 states.
When you come to the city post office, sitting smack on the state line, you are diverted around it on State Line Avenue, passing the building on the east side which just happens to be . . . Arkansas.
Here is the post office where you can see the state line splitting it into a Texas side and an Arkansas side.
From there I went further east into the interior of Arkansas. I stopped in Hope to see President Clinton's childhood home, then continued northeast to see the famous Hot Springs National Park. I finished the day by finding a nice hotel in downtown Little Rock, just a stone's throw from the Arkansas State Capitol Building.
This was the point of apogee of my road trip from Seattle. The rest of the inbound journey would be a return west, but over a different route. The next day, September 9th, I headed out on I-40 westbound toward Fort Smith, but detoured off the interstate at Conway and kept north along US 65. I stopped to check out Natural Bridge of Arkansas:
The return trip home was accelerated. I felt I had accomplished what I set out to do, and now, I just wanted to be home. I raced back across the continent, passing through Tulsa, Oklahoma and Wichita, Kansas, scarcely interested in the scenery along the way. I spent the night in Wichita. The next day I pressed on into Colorado and overnighted in Gunnison. I took this photo in western Colorado on September 11, the one-year anniversary of the 9/11 attacks:
I was home by the evening of September 12th. I spent 11 days on a slow-paced trek to Arkansas, but just four days on the return trip. It was good to sleep in my own bed. I had put nearly 6,000 miles on my odometer. The next day, however, I was already planning my next adventure on the road. There's always more to explore. I will never be done traveling. And that is a tremendous comfort to me.
. . . Until next time, dear travelers, may all your journeys be safe and rich in experience!