Roadtripping is in my blood. I can’t get enough of seeing national parks, roadside attractions, and the geographic diversity of the U.S. When my second severe bout with cancer went into remission in May, 2019, and knowing the odds were in favor of the leukemia returning within two years, I knew what to do. I had the perfect remedy. It was time to hit the road again.
I began planning what turned out to be a 31-day, 6,400-mile road trip across the country visiting 14 states and nine national parks along the way. My wife Rosie and I owned a pop-up camper for almost 25 years as we took our four kids camping and sightseeing to over 30 states. But now with just the two of us, I purchased a small 22-foot Forest River Wildwood travel trailer which would be pulled by our Dodge Ram pickup truck. We camped four times with the new travel trailer here in Ohio during 2018 before I was hospitalized.
Fast forward to September, 2019. I had taken several months to get my physical strength back, research, and plan the trip. We left on September 14 from Moraine, Ohio, and headed west. Our first stop was Stanton, Missouri. We camped at our first of many KOA Campgrounds. Just off historic Route 66 we visited Meramec Caverns where Wild West outlaw Jesse James and his brother Frank once hid after robbing a train. The caverns, a 4.6-mile cave system that opened in the 1930s, were beautiful with colored stalactites, rock formations, an underground spring, a 50-by-50-foot ballroom, and a consistent temperature of 58 degrees.
40 miles to Uranus
The following day Rosie and I kayaked 7 miles down the Meramec River from Meramec State Park to Meramec Caverns. The river was very clean and clear. We saw many turtles, blue herons and dozens of caves. We kayaked into a cave that sparkled from the sun’s reflection on the water and rocks. Later that afternoon we enjoyed the Meramec Caverns exciting zipline and steep climbing bridges.
At nearby Cuba, Missouri, we visited roadside attraction icons such as Missouri Hick BBQ, Wagon Wheel Motel (the oldest continuously operated motel on Route 66), the World’s Largest Shoes (size 38), once worn by Robert Wadlow, the world’s tallest man. Cuba is nicknamed the Mural City and we viewed beautiful paintings ranging from Amelia Earhart to the Civil War. Cuba also had a great Amish bakery. Just down the road at St. James, Missouri, we visited the World’s Second Largest Rocking Chair (at one time the world’s largest), which is 42 feet tall and weighs 27,500 pounds.
We drove one hour down Route 66 to the tourist destination of Uranus, Missouri. The hilarious billboards stating “Only 40 miles to Uranus” were like magnets. With this kind of humor I had to stop. I wasn’t disappointed. We entered the Uranus Fudge Factory and General Store where the best fudge comes from… you know where. The general store contained an assortment of every merchandise imagined adorned with the town’s famous catchphrase. Even with all of the gags and one-liners we viewed a unique roadside attraction there: the World’s Largest Belt Buckle, 10 by 14 feet in size. There was no “end” to the jokes at Uranus, and 50 miles down the road I found myself still laughing.
From Oklahoma to Utah
Traveling through Oklahoma on the Will Rogers Turnpike, we passed under the World’s Largest McDonald’s, built over all four lanes of the road.
Cruising along the interstate and catching occasional glimpses of Texas longhorns, we arrived at Amarillo, Texas, and stopped by one of our favorite Route 66 roadside attractions, Cadillac Ranch. Ten Cadillacs ranging from 1949 to 1963 models are buried nose down in the ground. This unique piece of public art allows you to colorfully adorn the cars with spray paint and graffiti.
After camping at the Alamosa KOA campground in Colorado and enjoying a bonfire and viewing the incredible galaxy above, we encountered one of the hardest hikes Rosie and I ever attempted. We drove to the nearby Great Sand Dunes National Park. It was a surreal image seeing these massive sand dunes rise up in the middle of nowhere with beautiful mountains and thick tree covered forests beside them. The hike was very difficult due to the deep, soft sand combined with high altitude (8,200 feet) making it hard to catch your breath.
We hiked up to the top of the third highest sand dune which was a 610-foot climb. At that summit, we were blasted by 35-mph winds and blowing sand. We couldn’t see to continue up to the tallest dune, Star Dune at 750 feet.
Leaving Alamosa, we enjoyed a breathtaking 310-mile drive through southern Colorado to Moab, Utah, cresting three different 10,000-foot mountain summits along the way. In Antonito, Colorado, we visited the house used in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, now a bed and breakfast. In the movie, it is the boyhood home of Indiana Jones (River Phoenix). Nearby, the local railroad and tracks were used for the train chase scene.
Along the two-lane highway were countless “Open Range Cattle” signs. With no fencing, we periodically came upon cattle standing in the road. Coming around a curve at one summit I slowed down as a 1,500-pound steer lay dead in the road.
Arriving at Moab, Utah, we camped at Moab Slick Rock Campground for four nights. The first night we sat in Arches National Park until midnight at the Park Avenue Trailhead and looked up at the beautiful galaxy. The next day we hiked several trails. Beginning at Double Arch Trail, we posed at the site in front of the arch where another chase scene from Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade was filmed.
After two days of hiking through Arches, we rented bikes in Moab and biked the Moab Canyon Pathway Trail north to the national park entrance, enjoying lunch under a shelter house. This was a difficult uphill pedal on a hot day, but it was fun coasting back to the Colorado River and east on Goose Island Bike Trail. We celebrated back at the campsite by grilling some delicious hamburgers.
The second of Utah’s five national parks that we visited was Canyonlands, not far from Moab. This national park looked like a smaller version of the Grand Canyon. Hiking the 4-mile Cliff Overlook Rim Trail we saw where the Colorado River and the Green River converge in the canyon 1,400 feet below. Rock cairns were a welcome navigational aid on the rocky trail. We sat on a cliffside ledge at Grand View Point Overlook sharing our cliff bars with several rock squirrels and marveling at the fantastic vista of Junction Butte and Candlestick Tower.
We left Moab and began crossing Utah on Highway 24, toward the next national park. Capitol Reef National Park is composed of cliffs, canyons, domes, and a geologic monocline. We only spent a few hours in the park, hiking a beautiful trail beside a meandering stream.
We camped at the KOA Campground at Cannonville, 15 miles east of Bryce Canyon. Bryce Canyon National Park was by far the most beautiful park on this trip. In the morning we checked in at the Bryce Canyon Lodge and walked to the stable. We rode horses from Sunrise Point down 1,000 feet to the canyon bottom on a 90-minute ride viewing the hoodoos (irregularly eroded rock spires) up close.
My horse, named Red River, closely followed our guide. We began the morning in chilling temperatures near Sunrise Point but in the canyon below it warmed up fast and we shed our sweatshirts. The views and the ride were fantastic and highly recommended.
After a short lunch we hiked 7 miles on the Canyon Rim Trail. The trail had several steep elevation changes but every quarter mile we hiked as we looked down into the canyon below, every sandstone formation would change colors depending on how the sun struck them. It was truly breathtaking. Several trails led down into the canyon but the morning horseback ride had already covered much of that area.
We headed back to our campsite and encountered our first rain on the trip, which produced an incredible double rainbow. This beautiful double rainbow looked like it ended right over our travel trailer. The rainbow held significance for me as I felt God was looking after me. Today marked the one-year anniversary of when I entered the hospital for 34 straight days as my leukemia had come back a second time. After five additional months of treatment, God blessed me as I went into remission and had the opportunity to take this 31-day trip. We quickly showered and headed back to the Bryce Canyon Lodge where Rosie treated me to an elk chili dinner to celebrate my 64th birthday.
Peace of mind
From Bryce Canyon we drove the winding roads to Cedar City KOA Campground. We headed south to the northern Zion National Park area called Kolob Canyons. The Taylor Creek Trail was one of our favorites, threading 4.5 miles through the woods offering beautiful scenery and 46 creek crossings. The trail was invigorating yet desolate, and we felt as if a mountain lion or Sasquatch would step out at any time. We passed a circa 1930 pioneer cabin called Larson Cabin tucked away by the meandering stream.
On day two, after a 59-mile drive from the campground to reach Zion’s southern entrance, we took shuttle buses into the park to hike three awesome trails.
First up was The Narrows. A 1-mile hike brought Rosie and me past tiny grottos, weeping rocks, meadows of wildflowers, and hanging gardens. Leaving the trail, we walked almost a mile against the cold current of Kolob Creek, which flows through colorful, tight canyon walls. The water was not hypothermic, but at 57 degrees our legs soon went numb. Once the water depth got above waist high, we turned around and headed back. We kept an eye on the weather as a rain shower miles away would make the creek rise rapidly and hikers could drown. This famous trail is best hiked in the summer as you can go several more miles upstream and the cliffs become even more narrow and colorful, reflecting the blazing sun.
Our second hike was the 2.5-mile Emerald Pools Trail where we had several close encounters with deer and a beautiful waterfall. The third hike was the strenuous and infamous Angel’s Landing. We hiked up 1,300 feet and made it 70 percent of the way before stopping due to high winds and lack of daylight to make the summit. We saw breathtaking views from our high vantage point.
We said goodbye to the state of Utah just as an early snow storm was hitting Bryce Canyon, and drove 125 miles south into Nevada to our destination, Valley of Fire State Park. Just when I thought we had seen every rock formation possible, we hiked the 2-mile Fire Wave Trail past red sandstone formations. At the end of the trail were incredible, smooth, colorfully striped wave-looking formations.
We headed south of Las Vegas to Lake Mead where Rosie fed popcorn to the striped bass at the Marina. A short jaunt further south was one of the greatest construction feats in the U.S., Hoover Dam. We toured the dam and enjoyed ice cream at the outdoor cafe. Although we enjoyed a late dinner at Rainforest Café, the crowded, chaotic hustle-bustle world on the streets of Las Vegas made us yearn to get back out on the road to seek nature and escape this metropolis madness.
We found our peace of mind once again as we drove 12 miles south of Hoover Dam into Northern Arizona, to Willow Beach State Park Marina, and rented kayaks. We paddled north on the Colorado River to Emerald Cave, where the sun reflects off the water onto the roof of the cave creating a dazzling effect. The river was so clean and clear I wanted to jump out of the kayak and go scuba diving. I could see fish and grass 20 feet deep. While we enjoyed the recreational benefits, I didn’t realize how amazing the Colorado River is. The river winds 1,450 miles through seven states and Mexico, supplying water for 40 million people. Over 20 Native American tribes share water rights.
Back on the road we entered the Golden State of California where we were greeted with gas prices upwards of $4.99 per gallon. We drove 220 miles from Las Vegas and camped at Desert Springs KOA, where campers were on scorpion alert as several large scorpions were reported. We arrived at the right time as it had been 114 degrees during the day two weeks earlier.
Joshua Tree National Park was our next destination. We hiked the 2-mile moderate Ryan Ranch Trail with an 80-foot climb past yucca, black bush, and twisted Joshua trees. Rangers told us to keep our eyes open for rattlesnakes, desert tortoises, iguanas, and bighorn sheep.
We were now 22 days into our trip and headed east on Interstate 10 through southeastern California into Arizona. When you are roadtripping, as RVers know very well, sometimes you just have to drive long distances to get where you want to go. On our 280-mile drive from Saguaro National Park to Las Cruces, New Mexico, we re-visited one of my favorite roadside attractions, the mysterious adventure called The Thing. We took our four kids here back in August, 2009. The exhibits weave a story that the aliens that allegedly crashed in Roswell, New Mexico, in July, 1947, were real, and a government conspiracy allowed aliens to mix with humanity. Thirty minutes later, the experience ends with the body of The Thing. I can’t reveal what The Thing is or I would ruin it, but this is a must-stop and admission is only $4.
The next day we drove eastward 680 miles through Texas. The interstate was flat and monotonous as we cruised past endless dust devils and oil derricks. We stayed the night with friends just east of Dallas.
Our last destination was Hot Springs National Park. Hot Springs, Arkansas, is the only national park that makes and serves its own beer, as it has a microbrewery on site. The national park consists of many hiking trails, 47 natural hot springs with an average temperature of 142 degrees, plus several hot spring spas where you can get massages or relax in therapeutic whirlpools.
We hiked the 3-mile Mountain Trail in the rain (only our second time it rained the entire 31-day trip). We took a fascinating historic tour of the national park visitor center, formerly one of the therapeutic spas. That night it dipped to 39 degrees, perfect for roasting marshmallows over our campfire.
After a two-night stop at the KOA campground in Nashville, we made it safely back to Moraine, Ohio. Thirty-one days of traveling with my perfect, adventurous wife.
When traveling we’ve always felt that meeting people along the journey enriches our trip experience. Eating in a local mom-and-pop restaurant instead of at a restaurant chain gives us a chance to taste local cuisine and observe local culture or customs. Sitting around the campfire with RVers from other states gives us a chance to swap stories, laugh with them, or share a prayer with them. This is what we call roadtripping. I can’t wait to get on the road again.