Saturday, January 3, 2015

Great American Road Trip 2013: Take 1 Vegas to Texas

As OMS3 (third year medical students) we are gifted our last actually Christmas Vacation for more or less the next ten years. Last year we took full advantage of those precious fourteen days off and ventured off for A Great American Adventure!

Google Maps only lets you add 10 destinations!
Along the way we learned a ton of invaluable lessons, saved a few lives, ate a ton of great food, saw amazing sights, nearly broke a tailbone and drove over miles. Here are a few stories, tips and recommendations for planning and inspiring your own amazing road trip.

Hoover Dam is a short 35 mile drive from Las Vegas, and for this trip a no-brainer must-see. This was my second time visiting Hoover Dam, like Vegas I hadn't stepped foot there since I was seven years old. At that time the Mike O'Callaghan-Pat Tillman Memorial Bridge was just a plan in the works, all traffic went directly over the dam. It was amazing to see the changes, as well as feel the awesome power and sheer size of the construction again.

View from the parking area on the far side of the complex
Mike O'Callaghan-Pat Tillman Memorial Bridge 
Drought and sunset on Lake Mead 
Original generators are still fully functional and operational
We highly recommend taking one of the tours through the dam, there is the Dam Tour a full hour of information and guided tour of the inner workings and passageways of the dam and its history. The Powerplant Tour a  30 minute tour into the dam, its power plant and intake pipes.

We arrived too late for the Dam Tour, and were not disappointed by the Powerplant Tour and visitors center.

Take some time driving up to the dam to stop and check out the vantage points along the way. There is a parking area that lets you walk over the Memorial Bridge for spectacular views of the Hoover Dam.

Staying overnight in Flagstaff, AZ put us in perfect driving distance to spend the day at the South Rim of the Grand Canyon. My traveling partner was beginning to feel under the weather, so most of the driving was left to me. We also found out that it is very hard to find cold medicine that does not contain phenylephrine! And it takes enough time so that I never got to see Horseshoe Bend.

View from the South Rim, Grand Canyon National Park 
The North Rim is over 12 miles away across the canyon here
The Grand Canyon is one place that I hope everyone sees in their lifetime. Pictures do not begin to do justice to this wondrous place.

In the winter months only the South Rim is open, entrance fee of $25 fora private vehicle.

We spent most of the day walking the ridge trail, taking pictures and venturing as close to the edges as we dared.

Bring lunch with you, as there are no great options for food. There are some, um, things....but save yourself and bring a lunch.

Phoenix, AZ is home to one of our good friends and fellow classmates. He opened his home to us for a few days, and good thing! My traveling companion got horribly ill in the time it took to drive from the Grand Canyon to his apartment. We ended up not seeing any of the city, nor the surrounding hiking spots (poop). And two days later and packing a case of gatorade we headed off to the next stop on our journey.

My only decent Saguaro picture
A complete side-track: I realized we were passing through the Saguaro National Park near Tucson, AZ and just had to see one of these giants. This is the only place in the world where the nation's largest, most iconic cacti grow naturally.

It was pitch black and cold but damn it, I got to see the cacti!

Also, this about where the "check engine" light came on.... No worries! it was only about 9pm, dark, in the Arizona wilderness and oh wait, no cell phone service.

This is when we learned that taking pictures of the directions from the phone for future reference was a great idea. In areas where there is no signal you can still look at the picture of the map and directions.

Also in this area were great cattle crossing signs, but we didn't see any free range cows going by.

White Sands National Monument was another spot I just had to see. My companion was feeling better, but I was doing the driving still. New Mexico has inland boarder patrol stops, and they are serious. I nearly said "New Jersey" when they asked me what country I was a citizen of.....Yeah, I know. It's startling to run into a boarder checkpoint while still in your home country.

So why the dunes? Sand sledding!!! At the park office they sell new and used saucer sleds along with surfboard wax (get it) and then you go off into the wilderness to find the biggest dune you can and try not to kill yourself. It was so much fun! These dunes are not like Kitty Hawk, NC, they are special and smooth, 275 square miles of white sand dunes composed of gypsum crystals

Aside from tailbone-breaking fun, the area is also home to the White Sands Missile Range where the first atom bomb was detonated.When missile testing is being conducted they shut down Route 70 between Las Cruces, NM and Alamogordo.
This is so much fun

Texas is huge. Vast, wide-open stretches of land with nothing visible for miles. Leaving Las Cruses, NM we made our way east across west Texas aiming for San Antonio, TX. Get gas at every opportunity through here. 

Our first intended stop in Texas was San Antonio to visit friends and family. No visits to the Alamo or the River Walk this trip (but I have been to both) just a walk through the Japanese Tea Gardens and San Antonio Zoo.
Entrance to Japanese Tea Garden, San Antonio 

Next over to Houston for New Years Eve at friend's house. And off to Austin for two days because I love that city.

Two of my best friends recently moved there so check back for some great insight on Texas trips, this state deserves it's own page...or at least several posts.

Austin is full of live music, a wide array of food and some of the best street entertainment and art culture you can find.

Coy Pond!
The best Mexican food I've ever eaten: 
The best Mexican food I have ever eaten was near San Antonio in a strange little place called Mariscos El Bucanero

If you are ever in the area go there, and get this pineapple loaded with seafood awesomeness, you will not be disappointed. 

Capital Building, Austin, TX

Austin offers a past rich in history and a present rich in culture, music and food.

We spend two days relaxing and enjoying the city, touring the capital building and taking in the history (by following a Segway tour), and reveling in the nightlife, music and food.

The Driskill Hotel was built in 1886 as the showplace of cattel baron Jesse Driskill. We did not stay here, but we sure enjoyed a few drinks in this classic old-money hotel and bar.

The Driskill Hotel, Austin,TX
Even the bar stools were covered in cow hide, the couches leather and all the art work original and cowboy inspired.

When you visit Austin, TX you MUST go to 6th Street in the evening and stay. Just go into every bar and listen to the music, taste the food and have a few drinks. You will not regret it.

In this area Yelp is your best friend helping you find the hottest spots and drink specials (check in specials too!).

121 5th Street, Austin, TX

The sad truth is that from Austin we had to hurry back to Kirksville, MO. I wish there were more adventures to share from this trip, but alas, it was a lot of straight driving through Oklahoma and Missouri to get back to our next rotations. 

Keep an eye out for more travels and misadventures of this medical student!