How to travel through the Southwestern USA

I just returned home after a two-week trip to Southwest America, where 1,700 miles took us through the four states of New Mexico, Colorado, Arizona and Utah (not necessarily in that order).  The trip included hiking in NM mountains, a scary four-wheel drive in CO mountains, a four-hour train ride on the only working narrow gauge train in the country, horseback riding in Taos NM, great food, wonderful people, and spectacular scenery that simply cannot be adequately captured in pictures.  Perhaps a future blog or two will cover some of these experiences, but for now, I want to share the vast differences in traveling styles between the Northeast and Southwest USA.

usa map with arrowMy home in the northeast is about 2,600 miles from the westernmost point in our trip, almost as far as one can go and still be on mainland USA. It’s all the same country, so you probably wouldn’t really expect much to be different. Well, surprisingly enough, it is!

Objects in the mirror are further than they appear:
In New York State, there are not that many truly wide-open spaces.  There are towns, cities, hills, mountains, lakes, valleys, and other geographical interferers that help a driver estimate distance.  You can easily look up to the next curve, or the next home, and be able to estimate when you will arrive.  This is simply not true in the southwest.

AZ - on way to NM - vermillion cliffsIn Arizona, for example, there are huge distances that are flat and straight. The road simply keeps going and you can see miles behind you and miles in front of you which make estimating any distances extremely tough.

For example, at one point, I knew the lodge we were staying at was at the end of a long line of cliffs.  I could see the end of the cliffs in the distance; it certainly couldn’t be more than 15 minutes to get there!  Nearly an hour later and we were still driving and the end of the cliffs didn’t look any closer.

Bottom line, it takes a long time to get anywhere when you are driving out west.  Give yourself plenty of room in your schedule.

Be flexible with your restroom requirements
If you are not on a major interstate in the southwestern USA, you WILL have a problem finding a bathroom.  Not only can “towns” be 100 miles apart, or more, but in between, there is NOTHING.  Not only does that mean there are no rest rooms, gas stations, houses, or any other facility that might have a bathroom, but it means there are no TREES.  Take this into account when you make your plans.  Be willing to try to hide behind some sagebrush, or somehow “hide” between your car doors, or just have some sort of travel utility in your car.  It’s really a tricky thing, and to sort of stay on the same subject, see the next section.

Don’t believe the advertisements along the road
When you are on a main interstate, the exits may still be fairly far apart, and there may STILL be no utilities off the exits.  We passed plenty of exits with a sign and then two roads, one going north, and one south, for miles through the desert with nothing else.  No gas station or restaurant or house.  It kind of boggles the mind of those of us in the northeast who have public restrooms within easy access, no matter where you are.

But here’s where the advertisements come into play.  There are often signs that proclaim “Burger King, clean restrooms 75 miles ahead” or “MacDonalds, clean restrooms off exit xxx”.  So rather than try to find some other hidden spot to do your duty, you hang in there and wait for that exit.

restrooms closedAt one point, I was already somewhat desperate when I saw a huge ad that proclaimed MacDonalds was about 40 miles ahead.  I decided to wait.  That was a tough wait!  We finally arrived at the signs that shouted “MacDonalds THIS EXIT” and we zipped off the exit, pulled into the parking lot and saw huge signs, “LOBBY CLOSED.”  It was under construction.  Luckily, we had finally reached a populated area so there was another option right down the road.  However, this occurred twice during our trip, so don’t rely on any kind of ads along the road.

When ya gotta go, GO!

Travel time estimates should take into account mountain roads
While there are places out west where the speed limits are 75mph, there are also places where you simply cannot go higher than 30mph; even on the main roads and even though there are no towns to drive through. Extremely windy roads with switchbacks on cliffs and mountains with no guardrails are not conducive to fast driving.

Also, beware of speed limit signs. You are typically required to slow down when reaching an intersection, which sounds crazy if you live in New York and there are intersections every 100 feet, but out west where intersections occur every 100 miles, the signs are there so everyone pays attention to the road that a car just MIGHT come out of.  Also, there are Indian reservations where speed limits could drop by 30 miles per hour all of a sudden.  If you see those, definitely slow down.  Police might be waiting.  Speaking of which….

Where are the police?
This is not an endorsement to speed, but…. On a recent trip down a highway near my home in New York, there were five police cars within the space of about two miles waiting to trap speeding motorists.  And another policeman had caught someone.  They were hiding in between hills on the “No U Turn” areas of the road.  That’s fairly typical around here.

Out west, I saw one police officer.  On 1,700 miles of road.  In fact, if you had an issue; a broken down car, or some sort of medical emergency, I was wondering how long you’d have to wait for a police officer or ambulance to arrive.  I’m betting people out west need to be a lot more self-sufficient than people in the east.  So make sure you have some sort of first-aid kit in your vehicle.  And buy a cheap cooler and keep it filled with food.  Oh, and don’t forget to bring along a cell phone.  Just in case.

Out West, cell phones work in the wackiest areas (on top of an 8,000 foot mountain in the desert with no cell tower in site), but don’t work in many other areas.  If you use your phone or your tablet as your GPS device, you may want to take this into account.  There is STILL a need for paper maps – you know, those maps of old that are about 4 feet by 3 feet wide and are hard to fold.  By the way, those maps are not easy to find anymore.  Stop in a tourist center and buy one.  You’ll be happy you did.

In Summary
When in the Southwest, BE PREPARED!  Sunscreen, hats, water and a camera almost go without saying, but also have a first aid kit, some food, maps, a trouble-shooting/I-can-handle-anything attitude, a sense of humor, and a phone.  The scenery and adventure the Southwest can provide is totally worth the time spent preparing!



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