Travelling without a Plan…Houston to Nashville Road Trip
November 5, 2017
I love to travel to the deep south of the United States, especially in the fall. While winter is threatening at home, the weather in Texas feels like summer. The leaves are all gone in Alberta, yet the trees along the Natchez Trace Parkway through Mississippi are just starting to change colour. The beaches in Biloxi on the Gulf Coast are deserted in October. Flights are cheaper and accommodations are easy to find. And of course… the Houston Astros won the World Series while we were there so it was definitely a great time to travel.
This trip took many forms and in the end, was not recognizable from our original plans. We wanted to travel to North Carolina by way of Houston to see the fall colours in the Blue Ridge Mountains and visit our son and daughter-in-law who live in Texas. They have an old car of ours that we thought we could pick up there and drive through the Carolinas and be home within our 2 week time limit. We booked our flight to Houston which was only $180 each for one way.
Change of plans #1
The car wouldn’t start. It is old and not currently registered in the United States. My son and a friend spent an afternoon trying to boost it, to no avail. We priced renting a car in Houston and flying home from Raleigh, NC. but hat would cost about $1200 for 2 weeks because we weren’t returning it to the point of pickup. That meant we could only travel at most, one week away from Houston. I booked a flight back home, at $110 each. Peter’s plan was still to try to get the car running so he was not interested in making plans until he sorted out the car.
The Houston Astros were in the playoffs so we decided to make this a fall sporting trip. We looked online at the possible sporting events besides baseball. The Formula 1 was in Austin. University of Houston Texans were playing football at home and Ole Miss in Oxford, MS had 2 home football games while we were there. That sounded like a great plan. We would rent a car and attend some events we had only seen on TV. We booked a rental car for a week for $180.
If we stayed in Houston for a few days we could see the car race and the University Game. We might even get lucky and get a baseball ticket. Then we would travel to Nashville for a chance to hear some country music and come back through Mississippi to hang out at a tailgate party in the Grove in Oxford, then watch a home game. We would return to Houston for more baseball then fly home. We might even fit in a little golf along the way.
Change of Plans #2
The grandstand tickets for the Formula 1 in Austin were sold out on their website, although there were a few for some of the curves along the track. It would be a very hot day standing in the sun in one spot.
There was a Dynamos soccer game in Houston on Sunday afternoon with seats. That seemed a better plan. We decided to watch the start of the race on TV on Sunday then go to the soccer game.
That left Thursday to golf at Tour 18. It is an 18 hole course “inspired” by famous PGA courses including Amen Corner at Augusta and the 17th Island green at Sawgrass. I only had a few of my clubs tucked into Peter’s bag and no golf shoes, but it was fun to play with my son and husband, and I enjoyed the heat. Peter was 2 under through Amen Corner so he really enjoyed it. The Texas fairways are rough but very thick and fluffy so the balls sits right down in the bottom.
No Plans…Let’s see what happens
Friday was a day to tour around Houston. There were some neighborhoods with so much debris still piled up on the street in front of their houses as a result of Hurricane Harvey. It consisted primarily of demolition materials removed from flooded homes. Some houses were having roofs re-shingled. For the most part, though, it was hard to believe that they had been under so much water a couple of months ago.
We spent the evening at the Beer Market Co. The playoff game with the Yankees was on. It was exciting to watch a home playoff game with locals all cheering for their team, and then to have the home team win. It was almost as good as being at the game, but a lot less expensive. The quality of craft beer in the USA has continued to improve over the years we have travelled there. I had a delicious Lemon Ginger Radler.
Plans that changed me
Our kids were busy on Saturday so we decided to volunteer with a group from their church, Bayou City Fellowship. We met in an area of the city that was needy before Hurricane Harvey and even more so afterwards. The church had received supplies and donations from around the country for the past couple of weeks. They had made up bags of cleaning supplies and had many boxes of toiletries, bleach, garbage bags, blankets, towels, toilet paper and paper towels.
Other church members arrived with vehicles full of supplies they had not required in the flood clean up of their own homes. Mosquito repellent, brooms and mops as well as more bleach were common items. Someone had donated a couple of cases of new children’s backpacks which brought big smiles to those children who needed one. There were maybe 25-30 volunteers, including several children.
A large cube truck arrived about 8:30 am. It contained the donations, as well as some small tents and tables. A large speaker played upbeat music to try to make the day seem a bit more festive. Several people from the line came and helped unload the truck. We set up 4 stations and sorted everything. There were 3-4 people in each tent to distribute the donations. Those volunteers who weren’t at a station helped those in line with their things or just talked with them to see how they were doing. We had to be aware of family groups and give an allotment to each family, not to each member. This was difficult as several small groups claimed not to be together. Apparently the line to receive supplies had begun to form about 6:30 in the morning.
Many thanked us although several didn’t speak any English. One woman was thrilled to get a broom! The odd donated bottle of dish soap or laundry soap created great excitement and work gloves and masks were much appreciated. It was difficult to chat as the line was long and moved steadily. It was really hard when we ran out of supplies before we ran out of people after about 2 hours. I got to go home and sit by the pool in the sun. They had to go back to their damp homes.
Things that struck me about Volunteering
- Some of the volunteers had been flooded at home too.
- People are people whether they have or whether they need.
- I wanted to feel proud about offering to help in a place that needed it, but it wasn’t about me. I was honored and humbled to have been given the opportunity to serve others.
- We were asked to see the change in us as a result of being part of this day, to see the world in a new way.
If you want to know more about the continuing relief effort of this group in Houston, check out the church link above. It includes some moving stories.
Our plans send us north
It was hot on Saturday, but Sunday morning began with a thunder-storm. When it rains here, it really comes down, even when it’s not a hurricane.
We had several recommendations about trying Airbnb home sharing service and decided to try it out in Nashville. We booked a private bedroom and bathroom, plus use of the living room for $118 for 2 nights. Since it was our first booking, we received a $53 discount after that. Last minute booking is much easier in October than in the height of the summer.
If you might want to try this service, set it up at home first as they want to send you an email and phone text to confirm your information. We had our phone plans set to just wifi so this was a challenge. The app made it easier to communicate with hosts over wifi. Here is a discount link to Airbnb
Finding the Natchez Trace Parkway
The roads out of Houston are much like the roads in Houston…filled with traffic. We chose to take as many backroads between Houston and Nashville as possible. It is over 1200 km so we planned two days to complete our journey. Our last-minute planning searches for things to do in Nashville revealed that the Calgary Flames were playing hockey against the Nashville Predators in two days time. What luck!
Natchez was our first stop. It is a small city on the bluffs overlooking the Mississippi River. It looks to me like a cross between Vicksburg, MS and New Orleans, LA. as it is filled with old antebellum homes and has several walking tours for architecture or views of nature.
It is also the start of the Natchez Trace Parkway, which follows the old trade routes from the SW corner of Mississippi to mid Tennessee, ending in Nashville, a distance of 440 miles. It has a slower speed limit, no signs or billboards are allowed, but there are lots of picnic areas and historical points of interest. We saw deer and wild turkeys along the way, but on the first section from Natchez to Jackson, MS, we didn’t see another car in our lane. October is a great time to travel in the south.
We spent the night in a hotel in Jackson, MS, of Uptown Funk fame, and continued on the second part of the trip towards Nashville. We had a coffee stop in a little place called French Camp, where we hoped to have a scheduled phone conference meeting with Alberta Golf. It just happened to be the place where all cell service ceased to exist.
Entrance and exit points to the Trace are limited, so we were lucky to find a little cafe in Dennis, MS, run by a woman and her sister-in-law. There were a few relatives and a couple of locals in for lunch but the chili and grilled cheese were only $5 and tasty. The service was so friendly and the stories were great. Small family restaurants are so worth a stop.
Last Minute Plans in Nashville
We arrived in Nashville with just enough time to check out our Air BnB and get to the hockey game. The Predator fans are serious about hockey! We saw so many jerseys, scarves, socks and jackets in Preds colours. We got tickets at the back of the middle bowl for about $50 each. It was fun to be part of this crowd since they had secret chants and cheers for different parts of the game. The game ended with a shoot-out and Calgary won. We were so glad that we hadn’t filled all of our time and were able to fit in the only sporting event that we hadn’t considered before we left home.
Our hosts recommended the Country Music Hall of Fame and the Trolley bus tour of Nashville. Both were well worth the time. The Hall of Fame was busy, but it had a great historical perspective on country music as well as influences from a large number of performers. There was a wall of gold records and the Hall of Fame itself is a round room with all the inductees arranged randomly on 5 line staves. The museum commissioned a painting for the room that included a variety of musical styles and transportation methods used as these styles were becoming popular. They really did a wonderful job in this museum.
Unplanned Hop On, Hop Off Tour
Bill, our driver, knew so many stories about this city. He told jokes and connected the past to the present in such an interesting way. He knew who owned most of the recording studios, where Taylor Swift just bought a new penthouse (and the rest of the building under it), how long the line up might be at Hot Chicken as well as the growth in the number of hotels in the city and why there is a full size replica of the Parthenon in Nashville. We were enjoying his performance so much that we decided to stay on the bus for the entire route and hop off on the second loop if we saw something we really wanted to see with more time. As it turned out, most of what interested us were within walking distance after we got off the bus.
It was well after 3 when we finished all the exploring and we wanted to eat some Tennessee BBQ. Jack’s had a combo plate we shared with ribs, brisket and pork shoulder and 2 sides. According to our trolley driver, mac and cheese is considered a vegetable so we had to check it out. They served the meat without sauce, which is served on the side. There was the choice of Tennessee sauce which is vinegar based and tangy, Texas which is think and tomatoey and St. Louis which was sweet and smoky. That was my favorite.
Unplanned Music…But what else would you do in Nashville?
Broadway is the main street in the downtown area. Even though the hockey arena has the same address, most of the buildings from the arena to the river are small bars that have live music from 11am until after midnight. Some are 2 or 3 levels with music on each level. Up and coming musicians perform for 3 or 4 hours. You can go in and listen for a bit then move on if the music isn’t to your taste. Most of the songs are covers of country stars with a few original tunes in the mix.
We listened to a couple of guys sing in Margaritaville after the hockey game. They were entertaining with their spin a song wheel to help them with their playlist.
The second night we went into Barlines Bar in the Omni Hotel. It is across from the convention Center and was really busy when we arrived, but they found us a table right at the stage. We listened to Hali Hicks. She had a session guitarist, Jeffrey Weaver, playing with her for the evening. With her voice and his masterful playing, it was great entertainment. The local craft beer was excellent and then the Flames vs St. Louis game was broadcast on the screen beside the stage. And then game 2 between the Dodgers and Astros started on the huge screen behind the musicians. Could we have planned it any better?
Back to Mississippi
Our son went to college and also got married in Mississippi so we have been there a few times before. The land near the river is a flat agricultural floodplain where they grow cotton and soybeans. Cotton was being harvested while we were there. They kill the leaves which exposes the cotton and makes for easier picking. It was strange for us to see bales of cotton as large as haystacks would be in Alberta. The eastern part of the state consists of large pine and oak forests.
We returned on the Trace towards the NW part of the state where Oxford is located. Our Airbnb hosts lived in the country on a beautiful acreage. They were so gracious and made us feel like family. If you want to learn about the people and get a real sense of the place, then this kind of accommodation might be right for you. We don’t have much experience yet, but it felt like an upscale hostel stay.
We also spent a couple of evenings with our daughter-in-law’s parents in Grenada, MS. They were so hospitable and even though we technically are family, they treated us so well. Those who live in the southern part of the United States really have their own culture and way of seeing the world. It made me think of the Canadians who live in Quebec and want to protect their language and culture within a larger country. Being kind and gracious to visitors is certainly part of that culture.
Change of Plans #2 Again
Our plans to attend the Ole Miss football game in Oxford seemed too complicated to be worth pursuing. Tickets were $90 each for a college game although the resale sites had better prices. We weren’t able to connect with any of our son’s friends to meet up and trying to find parking in this football crazy town (think The Blind Side) made our plan more energy than it was worth. We decided to change our plans and head south to the Gulf Coast.
Biloxi was a short overnight stop. The beach was white and the sunset spectacular. The Star Hotel was reasonably priced with friendly staff and the restaurant across the street had a nice wood fire, delicious seafood, local beer and the Astros playing game 6.
Even though we made our road trip based on our wish to attend the football game in Oxford, it was okay that our plans changed. If we hadn’t headed north, we would have missed out on Nashville, the Flames game, our wonderful hosts at Country Living BNB, visits with our Mississippi family and a wonderful night on the Gulf coast.
Being retired and having flexible travel time makes planning on the fly much easier than when I could only travel on school holidays, to the places everyone else wanted to visit. The fact that we have family living in the area helps reduce the anxiety of having a place to stay. Try it on your next trip. Leave some time open for opportunities to present themselves or people to come into your life. You won’t be disappointed.
Road trip on the scenic back roads of Montana, Wyoming and Colorado
August 22, 2017
Planning a road trip
As our home commitments finished and summer was drawing to a close, it was time to head out on the road for another adventure. Our ultimate destination was the White Rim road in Canyonlands National Park in Utah, USA. We booked our campsites ahead since there are not many available. That gave us 5 days of travel time to explore.
We opened Google Maps and discussed the route we should take to get there. We wanted to visit some new places and were okay with a little backtracking if necessary. I hadn’t been to Aspen and Vail in Colorado so we chose to travel through Montana, via Helena, then through Wyoming to Denver. From there we would travel west to Vail and end up at Moab and Canyonlands in Utah. It sort of worked out that way.
We left home Monday, August 14 and drove to the very southern part of the province. It was quite smoky from the forest fires to the west. We couldn’t see the Sweetgrass Hills that usually signal that Montana is coming up soon.
Montana is a very large state. We have been to many parts of it, but not all. The geography is so varied. With Glacier National Park in the far NW, the high plains of Little Bighorn in the NE, reservoirs and fly fishing rivers as well as cliffs and bluffs in the SE and Beartooth Mountains in the SW, you don’t have to look at the same view for very long. Another good thing about travelling through this state is that the backroads are excellent and have 70 mph limits. The freeway is 80 mph!
We followed the Missouri River for much of the way. Water really brings life to the valley. There were many big farms with outbuildings and fields with an abundance of baled hay. Along the water were fishing lodges and summer homes. The section of road where the glaciers had cut through the volcanic rock was quite spectacular. It was first described by Lewis and Clark in 1805.
Holter Lake State Park
We chose the road though Helena because it has lots of variety, such as rugged cliffs, shimmering water and the golden grasses of late summer. Holter Lake State Park is just before it at exit 266. We’ve stayed there before and it was our stop for the night. The lake is actually a reservoir and there were many boats filled with fisherfolk. The campground had grassy sites, pit toilets (that are now called vault toilets), drinkable water, and only cost $15/night. We got a spot in the second row from the lake. I got some nice sunset pictures that had extra color because of the smoke slipping into the state.
Once the sun went down, the stars appeared. The Milky Way was brilliant and filled the sky overhead from south to north. The crickets, yipping coyotes and video game shooting sounds from a nearby trailer were all that could be heard.
I met a couple from Oregon who are travelling full-time in their C Class motor home. They have done it for almost 4 years and are looking for different options like house sitting or long stay somewhere. They liked hearing about our time in Thailand and I had a tour of their unit to see what I would have to leave behind. It is a great research opportunity when you travel and find others at a similar point in their lives. They also recommended we travel through Beartooth Pass.
Canyon Campground-Gallatin National Forest
We drove from Helena towards Gardiner on roads that were mostly new to us. About 5 pm we passed a campground that looked to have empty spots. We drove along a little further then decided the closer we got to the park, the less sites were likely to be available. We turned around and claimed a site at Canyon campground in the National forest There was no water supply but we had brought our own water jugs and the pit toilet was fine. This site had the Yellowstone River just across the highway, and huge boulders scattered everywhere. It cost $7.
At Canyon Campground,as we were finishing supper, we noticed lots of vehicles driving in and looking for sites. We decided to offer to share our site with another tenter as there was lots of room. We know that feeling of being in a new place and waiting too late to find a spot. Nick and Katie were travelling from Ohio to Portland, Oregon for an internship. They had a ripped tent that we tried to repair with duct tape. We had a lovely evening sitting by the fire ring sharing stories of travel adventures. They were very appreciative of a place to sleep.. Travel is about the places you see, but also about the people you get to meet.
It is an “All-American Road” and passes from the NE exit of Yellowstone up over the Beartooth Pass at 10972 ft., then winds its way back down the other side. It is about 69 km but with all the hairpin corners it took some time. The views were so spectacular though, I wouldn’t have wanted to go any faster.
We were well above tree line for some time and there was quite a bit of snow still at the top. At one point I commented, “There can only be marmots and pikas live up this high,” just as a marmot scampered across to the other side. The road was first used by some soldiers in the 1880’s on the advice of a hunter in the area. The road itself was built in 1936. What engineering! My pictures barely do it justice.
Yellowstone to Beartooth
To get to this road, we had to change our plans and head south to Yellowstone, where we have visited a couple of times before, then drive across the loop at the top to get to Cooke City where the Beartooth road begins. We purchased the $80 yearly park pass at Yellowstone, as we can use it in Utah as well.
The road from Mammoth Falls to Cooke City, inside the park was pretty quiet. The landscape was high plains to begin, then more forested mountains on the east side. We saw many bison in herds, mostly in the valley bottoms. A couple crossed the road in front of us. Several cars just stopped in the middle of the road to look at them in the distance. That gets to be dangerous.
We travelled along the Lamar Valley where many of the wolves from Alberta were released. It was mostly open land with water in the valleys and trees on the hilltops. We looked, but couldn’t see any wolves today.
Our trip through Wyoming was different because of our detour to travel the scenic byway. We discovered there were roads that travelled mostly north and south from Cody, WY to Vail, CO. We didn’t have to go all the way to Denver and then backtrack to the west. It was good that we hadn’t booked all of our accommodations. It is not as busy later in the summer as many Americans are back in school already so it gave us the opportunity to take advantage of visiting places we didn’t know about.
The roads in Wyoming are also very good. We spent almost no time on the interstates. Wind River travels many km through a beautiful canyon. It was such an unexpected feature in western Wyoming. The cliffs are tall and steep. The water was clear and the shade was nice. We had another drive up to 2250 m where the horizon on the other side stretched forever.
Lots of the state is empty of people and although it is all fenced we saw many more antelope than cattle. Sage and scrubby grass cover the land. The southern part has lots of oil and gas activity. We stopped at a Wal-Mart to use the washroom and I saw a mom and her 3 young boys walking out. Those kids looked like they never took off their hats. They were genuine cowboys.
Rawlins Super 8
It was early evening by the time we finished our epic drive over the pass, then drove through much of Wyoming. We knew there were some campgrounds in Rawlins, but when we arrived, they were the parking lot kind that cost $30 and you listen to your neighbors snore, or they have to listen to mine. Those in big RV’s don’t mind, but we are tent campers. There was a Super 8 across the street for $64 with wi-fi, our own bathroom, shower and included breakfast. We had salad and sandwiches from our cooler and made sure everything was chilled in the fridge overnight. After our cheap, but rustic camping, it was worth it for the night.
We had been climbing in elevation all day yesterday and continued today. Rawlins was over 6000 ft., twice as high as Rocky Mountain House. Colorado took us over another 10 000 foot pass and our campsite SE of Aspen is over 8000. The 14 000 ft mountains don’t look as big as I expected as the trees grow so much higher up the sides.
Northern Colorado was more green than Wyoming. Water must be more plentiful. We stayed on the scenic byways and passed through little towns that seemed like towns you only see in movies. There were a couple of huge power plants with mountains of coal that had been stripped from the hills where cattle now enjoy the reclaimed lands grasses. We wondered why these roads to nowhere were so good until we saw all the workers at the plant.
When we travelled down the valley south of Vail, the views were so impressive. Even though the mountains are huge, the valley is wide and green. There were hay fields and horses in the pastures. Rivers and wetlands were common. We saw more homes in the country in an hour than we did in all of Wyoming. Our GPS sent us around the wrong side of Leadville which is a “don’t miss” old mining town but maybe another time. We did drive past the old mining town of Granite, which looks like a museum along the road.
White Star Campground
When we stopped for lunch I looked ahead for camping on the way to Aspen. White Star near Twin Lakes seemed the right distance away. It is a state park along a reservoir just before the road to Independence Pass. When we arrived it looked like every site was booked, but as we looked more carefully, there were different dates on the cards listing when they were reserved. As it was Thursday, most were booked for the weekend, or next week during the eclipse. Tonight was not in high demand. This place has lots of space between the sites, pit toilets and drinking water. It was $20 for the night and an extra $6 for a bundle of firewood, which we enjoyed very much.
The skies cleared here after supper and it was a chilly evening. The sun went behind the mountain at 7:15 and by 8:30 it was pitch black. I enjoyed learning to take Milky Way photos, although I needed my parka and toque to stay outside. It was down to 6 degrees Celcius for the night and I slept with almost all my clothes on inside my sleeping bag. The elevation is 9200 ft which explains some of the cold in August.
We managed to find one more scenic by way up over a pass. It surprised me to find this road in Trip Advisor. It was steep with switchbacks and few shoulders, but it was paved and rose quickly to 12 095 ft. We walked a little trail to view the continental divide where the land it tundra here. This area of the mountains was popular for mining in the 1880’s. It was a toll road at this time. The views were fantastic. The warning signs for vehicles over 35 ft were quite entertaining. They started with 35 ft vehicles not allowed. The last signs stated
- turn around here
- you will get stuck
- you will be fined
- you will block traffic and make everyone else furious
I may have ad libbed the last one, but it gives you an idea of what they meant.
The road down to Aspen took longer and had some very narrow sections. We were still at 8900 feet. We passed lots of campgrounds, creeks, areas of rock slides and many cyclists on their way up. Wow!
Aspen, Colorado is a busy place, like a bigger Banff. There were lots of huge homes, old brick and homes, condos and vacation rentals. It has an airport and 3 golf courses. It was too busy to stop there. Gas in Colorado was about $2.50 a gallon. It was $3.59 in Aspen. We can say we’ve been there and the road to get to it was so worth it.
We arrived in Canyonlands, Utah about 5:30 where our next adventure begins.