025 - 40 east | floridabound
9 days, 2’750 miles / 4’425 km
Joshua Tree N.P., CA > Flagstaff, AZ > Albuquerque, NM > Amarillo, TX > Henryetta, OK > Forrest City, AR > Pensacola, FL > Port St Joe, FL > Williston, FL > Sanibel, FL
We left Joshua Tree National Park with the general direction of heading east. Our next planned destination; east Tennessee and the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Which was also our last stop before returning to our very first state, where we embarked on this journey a long and now faraway 7 months prior, 20-something-thousand miles ago.
Since we came a similar route on our way to the Southwest, we intended to do the drive over to the other coast rather quick this time around. Another reason being, that we wanted to have enough time on the other side as well as back in Florida for all the formalities of settling back down, including putting our beloved Henry Ford on the market. Our previously booked return tickets to Switzerland are stamped with the date of October 29th, that is our final deadline of this adventure.
So, because these days were a little different concerning our daily activities, this blog deserves our road highlights, rather than our day to day.
September 8th - September 16th
Crossing through the Mojave Desert to reach Highway 40 eastbound has definitely made its way to the top of this list. As well known by now, I am a little sucker for the desert, so this drive was nothing short of remarkable. Somehow the wide-open landscape, with the scarce amount of greenery and the horizon being the only break in the view, always gets to me. I will unquestionably miss this.
The scenery between the states is a clear change on the 40. We came straight out of the desert driving out of California, while Arizona is still very dry, the earth is more red. New Mexico on the other hand is white again and has a lot of small green shrubs sprinkled across, accompanying its aridness. We also time travelled driving east, literally 3 hours into the future. Doc Brown would be very proud.
We stayed at the same Cracker Barrel parking lot in Flagstaff that we overnighted at when we came to visit the Grand Canyon back on April 16th, and of course also very much enjoyed their food this time. The jingles and Christmas decorations mixed in with the usual country charm in the store was a nice welcome for me as well, Mattia however, did not appreciate it as much. Hey, it’s only three more months till Christmas now, this is fair game. In Albuquerque we also decided to book the same RV park we stayed at before, but only because we did not quite like the city back then, and the Enchanted Trails RV Park came with a reasonable price, a hook up, and it was safe and outside of the city limits.
Between all the billboards advertising Katchinas, native American jewelry, Moccasins, Souvenirs, and the Casino 50 miles ahead, my top highlight in New Mexico was by far, the tiny little bundles of joy being sold in the McDonalds parking lot at one of the exits we stopped to fill up our parched Henry. As soon as I saw the sign, puppies for sale, lunch had to be put on brief hold, so I could get my fluffy cuddles. The chubby little German and Aussie Shepard mixed puppy sat in my arms so quietly and motionless, practically melting my heart with nothing but its own little heartbeat. It was for sure tough to straighten out my mind and principles to not just yell, "I'll take it". But glancing back at Henry, I managed to place the puppy back on the bed of the pick-up truck, admitting to the family selling, that I simply just came for the cuddles.
In Texas the scenery once again changed, wide open flat and dry yellowish grassland took in our views, the blue sky above a stark contrast. Here and there, a Pronghorn Antelope, a Texas Longhorn, and the scattered cows grazed the fields, surrounded by hundreds of wind turbines. As soon as we crossed the state line, they broke the landscape to our left the entire width of Texas. In Amarillo we added a quick stop at the Cadillac Ranch and drove past the most disgusting smelling farm on our entire trip. But the cows were also crammed into small pastures giving about one yard per cow. The smell was so dreadful, we ended up practicing holding our breath for more than five minutes, any pit toilet being a welcoming flower field compared to this.
We ate at the Big Texan Steak Ranch, home of the 72-ounce steak (yes, you read correctly), a place so well advertised the food doesn't even have to taste as great. And while we waited on our order, we got serenaded by the two cowboys singing the appropriate John Denver’s “Take me Home, Country Roads” song. Granting we might be “homeward” bound, honestly, the song reminded us that home is literally everywhere for us now. We left pieces of our hearts all over this continent; in the Alaskan wilderness, the bare desert, in parts of Canada, the vivid Pacific Coast, in the raw landscapes of Utah, the Sierra Nevada and the Rocky Mountains, and somewhere halfway down in the Grand Canyon.
The closer we got to Oklahoma the greener the scenery became. Hills started rising, the clouds rolling in, decorating the crisp blue sky like cotton balls. Other than the major landscape change, the only mentionable highlight was the very awful coffee I got at the Flying J gas station. Here I was, thinking French Vanilla was the least of the evils when it came to adding creamers, but clearly, I was mistaken.
In Arkansas we were faced with a bit of a delicate decision. You see, by the time we would make it to east Tennessee, we would literally drive directly into Hurricane Florence, who was expected to make landfall in that area on that same weekend we would arrive. We had no way of knowing how much east Tennessee and the western tip of North Carolina, with it Asheville and the Great Smoky Mountains National Park would be affected, but we also did not want to spend the last of our days finding out. All we knew was that the storm would bring a lot of rain, possible flooding and maybe even landslides. And because driving all the way to east Tennessee was already a bit of a detour from where we were ending our trip, and we had a whole list of future destinations on the east coast anyway, we decided to play it safe here, and steered south from the Arkansas Tennessee state line. We would have to come back to this area, Hurricane or not.
So, on Thursday September 13th, we instead set foot or in this case, wheel, in a total of 5 states. We woke up in Arkansas, we quickly drove through Tennessee to have lunch in Mississippi and continued from there through Alabama to overnight at the Walmart in Pensacola, Florida. With crossing the state line to Florida in its panhandle, we were immediately greeted by the first palm trees, and of course the Morgan and Morgan commercial playing on the radio.
We absolutely loved the long stretches of perfect white sand beaches on the National Seashore on Pensacola Beach. So much that we spontaneously threw on our bathing suits and let the warm Gulf of Mexico embrace our bodies. This lasted so long until a massive stingray swam up behind me, scaring us out of the clear teal water. Our drive from there confirmed to us that we certainly had arrived in Florida. Toll bridges snaked their way across the waters, skyscraper hotels lined the beaches, houses sat way above the water, raised on stilts, colored in creative watercolor tones. Sea planes flew above us advertising something silly, condo and street names like Sanddollar and Sandpiper were the norm and dolphin fins were spotted rather than seal heads or whale blows.
We were stunned by the intense humidity after coming from the very dry desert. We spent a night at St. Joseph Bay State Park, marveling at the warm rich sunset over the gulf, and I ate the most delicious Orange Almond Biscotti accompanied by a fantastic Cappuccino from a small underrated coffee shop in the cute downtown of Apalachicola.
We spent our very last night just outside Gainesville at the Devil’s Den Prehistoric Spring. While we snorkeled the overrated and very cold spring in the break of dawn and first possible hour to avoid the crowd, what highlighted this overnight was the fact that it was the last. For me, this prompted a little freak-out moment, mostly because I did not even want to think about this trip coming to an end beforehand. But of course, it’s always hard toward the end of anything, and I knew I would get overwhelmed with a flash of sadness at one point. And then a little thing like a silly wristband and having trouble leveling out for the last time triggered it. I realized everything was changing very quickly, our day to day would never look like this again. And I am the kind of person who notices the last of things when they approach, like the last time filling up Henrys gas, or brushing our teeth standing outside Henrys small bathroom, even emptying the waste water tanks. Suddenly waking up with the ceiling in my face didn't seem so bad. Or having the bathroom door touch my knees as I peed was not actually that uncomfortable. Doing the dishes and straightening out the couch one last time seemed something nice to do.
Finally, before driving over the Causeway to Sanibel, we got Henry's last oil change at the same Valvoline as our first, and when we arrived on the island, a single tear made its way slowly down my right cheek. This was it. It was one tear, but filled with so many emotions, that I was only able to shed the one. I felt sad, claustrophobic, content, home, yet so far away, a little scared and uncertain about the future, but also so happy we were here, at the very end of our trip, in the same home and car we started with, having been to all these incredible places, and even more wonderful in-betweens. In hindsight trips always seem like they passed in a blink of an eye, but to be honest, this one went by with us savoring every second. So, I guess we can say we achieved what we came here for, we truly slowed down. We can say we really lived, and still live this way, we saw, still see, we felt, still feel, we heard, still hear, we smelled, still smell. And everything with so much more awareness and importance, a gift from this beautiful land we will cherish relentlessly.
"These beautiful days must enrich all my life. They do not exist as mere pictures... but they saturate themselves into every part of the body and live always." John Muir