The Swafford family just got back from a 3 month, 7000 mile trip around the southern part of the United States. To say it was amazing would be an understatement. There is no way I can describe or capture the experience in words.. it was just simply an incredible, once in a lifetime opportunity that we were blessed to be able to do as a family.
Planning for the trip started somewhere around Nov. 2014. It was more of a thought or just an idea at the time. We saw that a friend had done something similar so we thought – why couldn’t we do the same? I’m able to work from anywhere, so the only real obstacle was that the kids would have to be home schooled. We decided we wouldn’t want to pull them out of school part way through the year so we started kicking around the idea of leaving in Sept. Weeks and months went by, and though it still sounded crazy, we never talked ourselves out of it. We were actually starting to make some plans. The idea was solidfying – it was really going to happen. We bought a big ole’ travel trailer in July of last summer, and a truck that could pull it, and on Sept. 14th we pulled out of the driveway on our big adventure.
The focus of our trip was the southwest. We wanted to focus on parts of the country that were just too far to get to otherwise. We wanted to see some Americana. There are all these things out there that you might not make a special trip for by themselves (the world’s largest rubber band?) – but taken together these things are all part of what makes America, well, America. The image below shows our tentative route. In the end it wasn’t exactly that but it’s close enough that I’m going to use it anyway.
For the most part we were going to follow along I-40 until we got out west. We wanted to follow along Route 66 for a while, then hit the Pacific coast, drop south into LA/San Diego, head back east along I-10 towards Baton Rouge LA, and from there north and east to home.
Now, keeping in mind that I have to work for a living and that our kids need an education, we couldn’t travel and see sights every day. Some days would have to be “zero days” — days spent in the campground taking care of business. There were a lot of those days. And honestly, we needed those types of days too. Being on the go all the time will wear you down. So, we got into a routine of sorts, switching between travel days, sight seeing days, and zero days (and sometimes combinations of those).
Here is the travel schedule we kept.
Sept. 14 – Anderson SC. Just an overnight stop. Our first destination was going to be Nashville, but that’s 700 miles from home – too far to drive in one day while pulling a 36 foot travel trailer. On top of that, I wasn’t crazy about the idea of driving through the Appalachians. We opted to add an extra hundred miles to avoid the mountains by going down through Atlanta, though in the end the traffic was probably worse than the mountains.
Sept. 15-17 – Nashville TN. Spent some time with James’s family. We got to see my Grandmother, my two sisters Fallon and Hillary along with their families, and ate a nice meal with my Aunt Carla.
I recall that the KOA campground in Nashville was an older RV park, not really suited for longer rigs, so it was not a very pleasant experience getting the trailer in there.
Sept. 18-19 – Memphis TN. My mom lives in southeast MO so she was able to drive down and spend a couple nights with us. The major attraction in Memphis is Elvis Presley’s Graceland. There is also the (in)famous Beale St. What I recall about Graceland was, honestly, how … unimpressive it was. Don’t get me wrong- it’s a nice house for sure, but for some reason I expected something a little bigger for a “mansion.” The house was really not all that large. It still has the 70’s decor from Elvis’s day. There are several buildings behind the house though, one of them with a hallway that houses all Elvis’s hit records (and there were many, many of those). Jamie actually came away from that an Elvis fan, at least for a while.
We also walked on Beale St, making true the lyrics of “Walking in Memphis.” There were some old shops, and of course a lot of bars, and some bikes. We ate at a Hard Rock Cafe.
Sept. 20 – Sallisaw OK – just an overnight stop on the way out west. I remember some hiking trails out there. This is where we noticed that the land was changing.
Sept. 21-23 – Amarillo TX – very windy! There weren’t a lot of trees, just wind and tumbleweeds! We ate at a very old Route 66 diner. I had a buffalo burger. This is the home of Cadillac Ranch.
Sept. 24-26 – Albuquerque NM – We saw some petroglyphs here, perhaps a few thousand years old left by ancient Pueblo peoples. It was a hot hike and we were on the lookout for rattlesnakes, but we really had the feeling that we were seeing some once in a lifetime stuff.
We also ate at this really authentic restaurant. I think it was the oldest in Albuquerque. Navajo tacos are good!
Sept. 27-29 – Holbrook AZ – During our first night in Holbrook there was a lunar eclipse.
There were two points of interest for us near Holbrook. The first was the Petrified Forest. We started to realize about 100 miles out that there wasn’t going to be a tree in this forest (or for miles around for that matter). But, who knew that millions of years ago the Arizona desert was actually a lush forest with raging rivers? The ground is rich with silica. Trees that fell into rivers became saturated with these minerals until eventually all the wood was gone, but rock remained.
We also went to see a mile wide meteor crater. This meteor impacted the earth around 50,000 years ago. You can still see the “ripple effect” the impact had on the ground. It was truly incredible.
Sept. 30-Oct. 4 – Williams AZ – The first thing I have to say about Williams is that this is where Ailsa finally learned how to ride a bike! We practiced in the campground and it finally just “clicked.”
Of course we went to the Grand Canyon. I knew that this was going to be one of the highlights of our trip. Amy and I had visited the Grand Canyon in 1996 with my brother Bobby, but the kids had never been. I remembered from back then a long trail that went down the canyon in a series of switchbacks, and then hiking along the plateau on the bottom to a point that overlooked the Colorado River. I didn’t remember the name of it but that was the famous “Bright Angel Trail,” and it’s the trail the family would hike on. Amy and Ailsa hiked about a mile and a half down (which is the hardest part by the way), then turned back while Jamie and I hiked a few more miles down to the Indian Garden. They did extremely well and Amy and I were both very proud of them.
Flagstaff AZ is about 30 miles east of Williams. Just south of Flagstaff are a series of Pueblo ruins. One of them is “Montezuma’s Castle.” Montezuma is actually an Aztec name, because it was originally thought to be Aztec. The ruins are settled into the side of a canyon wall. Unfortunately visitors haven’t been allowed in since the 1950s but it was still cool to see.
Also in the Flagstaff area were the Tuzigoot ruins. The main area of the settlement was set up on a hill (that’s where the important people stayed). It was really something to see how those people lived. We tried to get the kids to imagine what life must have been like for those people.
Oct. 5-9 – Cedar City UT – Cedar City is a small town in southwest UT, near Zion National Park. Zion is absolutely gorgeous. We went there to do some horseback riding, which was Amy and Ailsa’s favorite stop of the entire trip. We were able to book a 3 hour guided tour. We rode horses in a group of about 10-12 people through the desert canyons. I’m sure it’s something none of us will ever forget.
Oct. 10-12 Las Vegas NV – Las Vegas is such a weird town. It’s really this big city sitting in the middle of a scorching desert. Amy and I had been there before too. We wanted the kids to see it but of course you have to be careful going to a place called “sin city.” But, we were able to walk up and down the strip and see some sights, and even took them to the famous Blue Man Group show.
We also visited the Hoover Dam. It’s absolutely insane how large this dam is. We went on a tour into the bowels of the dam, way down in the generator rooms. At one point we were standing directly over the river raging through large pipes below us. The entire room was shaking with the power of the water below.
Oct. 13-17 – Needles CA – Needles, while in CA is still very much desert and HOT! There’s really not too much in Needles, but Havasu City AZ is about an hour’s drive. Havasu is famous for being the site of the London Bridge. It’s often confused with the Tower Bridge that still stands across the river Thames. The London Bridge really did come from London though, and at one time crossed the Thames. But, it was slowly sinking into the river (hence the nursery rhyme “London Bridge is falling down”). It was purchased by the city of Havasu in the 1960s for just a few million dollars. It was carefully dismantled, transported, and reassembled in exactly the same way it used to stand in London. This turned out to be a brilliant move by the city of Havasu, which has built an entire tourism industry around this bridge.
Also worth mentioning here is that Jamie did some offroad biking in the rocky desert around the campground, took a nasty fall and split his hand open. It was late on a Friday evening. We cleaned it up and closed the wound up with some steristrips. He has a small scar on the side of his hand to show for it but is otherwise OK. It didn’t keep him off the bike for long.
This gets us to about the halfway point of our trip. Read about the rest of this trip in part 2.