Normally Michael doesn’t shriek like a tween girl who just found out One Direction was breaking up. But he was this day. Being up close to the open jaws of a lion will do that to you.

We had arrived in Africa a few days earlier for a safari so Larissa could fulfill her long-time dream of seeing wild animals in their native habitat. Michael is more of a city boy, more comfortable with concrete than trees, so while he was coming along reluctantly as the good husband, he had his doubts about how this bout with nature would turn out.

During our travels around the world we met up with several people who just gushed about visiting Namibia, located on the southwest coast of Africa. Its main attraction is Etosha National Park, located about 250 miles north of the capital city of Windhoek.

wildlife in Namibia

 

About the size of New Jersey in the United States or Slovenia in Europe, Etosha surrounds a vast, blinding white saltpan and provides one of the best wildlife viewing areas in all of Africa. On any given day a visitor can spot elephants, zebras, giraffes, lions, springbok and, with a bit of luck, elusive rhinos, leopards and cheetahs.

We were riding in the park on a guided game drive in an open air Land Rover, making sure not to leave our arms dangling outside of it. Our safari driver, Ismail, knew all the hot spots or, in this case, wet spots as he sought out the waterholes where the animals congregate.

Within minutes of entering the park gate we spied a pair of giraffes loping across the road with their signature languorous stride. Despite a childhood spent leafing through animal photos in the glossy pages of National Geographic, nothing prepared us for seeing these animals up close in their native habitat. Surprisingly, Michael was enthralled as he watched the mesmerizing pace of the giraffes. We clicked through what would have been several rolls of film in the pre-digital era in about five minutes. Ismail’s gentle smile let us know that “You ain’t seen nothing yet.”

wild animals Africa two giraffes crossing road (575x440)

After 20 dusty minutes on a gravel road we reached the Nebrowni waterhole, where hundreds of zebras were eagerly quenching their thirst. Sprinkled among them were springbok, dik-diks and impalas.

We watched the animals for a spell and were just about to leave when off to the right three mammoth leathery gray piles lumbered towards us. The elephants plodded along with a slow-motion rumbling gait, with their big ears flopping back and forth.

As the elephants made their deliberate progress towards the waterhole, the zebras got a bit restless. Most of them had seen this movie before and scurried away before the gargantuan onslaught.

Photo of Zebra Namibia one elephant

When elephants show up at a waterhole it’s the equivalent of the chubby kid cannonballing into the pool at a swanky hotel. Everyone else gets soaked and figures out that it’s time to leave the party. It was no different here. The zebras and springbok crept away and meandered aimlessly while waiting for the big boys to have their fun.

The elephants weren’t content to just drink the water like the other animals. They plunged right in, splashing and swinging the water around with their trunks. They played for an hour, as delighted as schoolchildren on the first day of summer.

After this adventure, we drove down a rutted gravel road through scrub pine for two or three miles where we happened upon another watering hole where a herd of thirty elephants were cavorting in the mud; the larger ones pushing the little ones aside until they swigged together at the equivalent of the “kid’s table” at the end of the pond. Elsewhere giraffes crouched into their distinctive splay-legged wide stance so they could reach down with their long necks and slurp some water. Hours slipped away as we enjoyed front-row seats for our very own live-action nature film. Elephants here, zebras there . . . hey, there goes a pack of ostriches.

Etosha 30 elephants at waterhole-Namibia

At one point Ismail pointed out a large animal about 20 yards off to the side of the Land Rover plodding through the bush. At first, all we could see were branches being disturbed but then we focused on a sight that is rare indeed, the elusive white rhinoceros. It was so close yet we never would have seen it without our guide’s trained eye. This time we put the camera down and enjoyed the moment. We were experiencing one “pinch me, I can’t believe I’m here” moment after another.

Later that evening, as the setting sun was casting a golden glow on the savannah, we got a bit more than a pinch. We had stopped on the narrow shoulder of the road and parked over a culvert to take some photos of the sunset. Meanwhile Ismail was dropping rocks onto the culvert. He said lions sometimes sleep there to escape the heat and this would bring them out. (That maxim about not waking sleeping dogs, doesn’t it apply to lions too?) But guess what: his technique worked, perhaps too well.

self-drive Namibia trip lion

Suddenly a lion, or in this case a lioness, leapt up out of the culvert where she appeared at Michael’s dangling elbow. And that’s when the shrieking started. Fortunately, the lion didn’t seem all that interested in us, or was just so shocked at the sight of a grown man whimpering so much, that she sauntered away with nary a care in the world as she returned to her nap.

Michael was a bit stunned at first, as were we at his shrieking, but like a little kid who loves being tossed in the air and repeatedly asks for more, he said, “Hey, can we do that again?” City boy was becoming nature boy as our adventure in Africa continued.

Namibia self-drive safari

For those to whom a trip to Africa is the trip of a lifetime it’s a must-see, and as Michael proved, even those for whom it’s not on the radar will experience unforgettable moments that are not available anywhere else on Earth. Just be careful if you wake up a sleeping lion.

Note: This post has been sponsored World Expeditions as part of their #WEVentureOut series. We are proud to have our “Waking a Sleeping Lion” adventure featured in this series, which encourages travelers to step outside their comfort zone and experience more of the world. For more information on trips to Africa and other unique destinations, visit the World Expeditions website.

Driving on a fog-moistened slippery dirt road, perched precariously on the side of a mountain, is not everyone’s notion of the ideal vacation. Nor is it ours either. Yet for some reason here we were doing just that, while driving the Ring of Valentia on the far west coast of Ireland.

A wizened old billy-goat with a long gray beard, who had obviously seen it all before, watched us with a sense of amusement as we tried to keep our tires on the treacherous path. What we would have given at that moment to have that goat’s sense of sure footedness.

Lord of the Rings

49128650 - fogher cliff; valentia island; ireland

How did we get here? You see, for us the Ring of Kerry was a bit mundane. Everyone we knew who visited Ireland had been there and done that. The more remote Ring of Skellig, just beyond the Ring of Kerry, sounded intriguing . . . until we saw a note on our map that the even more remote Ring of Valentia, a circumnavigation of Valentia Island, was just beyond the Ring of Skellig off the coast of the Kerry Peninsula. The narrowness of the road precludes the tour buses which famously clog the Ring of Kerry, particularly in summertime. While not as famous as the other rings, the Ring of Valentia is no piker in the “sights to see” department.

So off to the Ring of Valentia we went, which is how we ended up in our present predicament, perched on a narrow path on the side of a cliff. The last signpost had stated “Slate Quarry 1 km.” On reflection I wasn’t sure why we were bothering to risk our lives to see a slate quarry in the first place. Then I remembered . . .

Heeding the Kerryman

We had been to a Vodafone store earlier in the week to pick up a SIM card for our phone. Upon learning we were heading west, the young salesman proudly piped up with “I’m a Kerryman myself” and recommended some of the less touristy sights. “You should definitely go see the slate quarry,” he said. Apparently it provided the slate for the Paris Opera House and the Houses of Parliament in London. It was hard to see what all the fuss was about, we had lived near one years ago in the Philly suburbs. We used to pass it on the way to the mall, and that quarry had seemed pretty unremarkable. But this was a recommendation from a Kerryman after all, so who were we to argue?

As the car wheels slithered along and kicked some gravel down the mountainside I thought to myself, “this is less touristy all right.” Probably because mounting deaths of visitors would be bad for tourism. Rarely have I felt in such imminent danger of dying on vacation. As my life passed slowly before my eyes, I realized Larissa was as terrified as I was. She didn’t have to tell me, her silence was enough. Rarely is my extremely chatty wife this quiet.

Cliff driving

Driving in Ireland

Note: This road in Ireland is not the road by the quarry. But I liked the sign.

To bolster my confidence I recalled prior challenging drives outside our comfort zone: like the time we drove on Route 1 overlooking the California coast; the road for which guardrails are shunned. At the time I kept reminding myself, “I never drive off the roads at home and there’s no reason having a massive drop next to the road should make me do it here.” But I hadn’t taken into account the logging trucks and RVs whizzing around every curve that had no regard for staying on their side of the centerline. Yet we somehow managed just fine. Or anytime driving in France, which I am told has the highest highway fatality rate in Europe. (Surprisingly it’s not Italy, the land of my ancestors.) Or even Boston, where rotaries (most people know them as traffic circles) are an invitation to anarchy . . . Which brings me back to our precarious situation clinging to a cliffside path in Ireland.

Here the danger wasn’t another car, but whether our own vehicle would continue to grip the slippery road or go sliding over one of the famous windswept cliffs of Ireland. Way down below us we could see the waves creating five-story high flumes as they crashed against the rocks of a lone lighthouse guarding the treacherous coast. As I navigated the next precarious turn, not far from my thoughts was the hope that I wouldn’t soon be seeing those waves up close.

It was essentially a one-lane road that carried trucks in both directions. The fact that at any moment a heavy rig laden with several tons of slate could come careening around at us only added to the drama. I couldn’t, and wouldn’t, back up. It was a curvy road and (did I mention this part yet?) I was sitting on the opposite side of the car to what I am used to. I didn’t like my odds of backing up safely.

Your place or mine?

We finally made it to the end of the road and almost drove into the aforementioned slate mine. We were still under the illusion that the road connected to something, that by staying on it we could continue winding our way around the island. We didn’t realize it was a dead end. (A term we hoped would just be used metaphorically.) As the road got smaller and narrower and tighter we gradually realized it wasn’t a road anymore. The guys walking around wearing miner’s hats with lights attached to them should have been a giveaway at that point. Their faces strapped underneath the lights wore the same amused expression as the billy-goat a mile back. Eyes that had seen it all before.

At that point we realized that there was no other way out and we would have to turn around and traverse the treacherous way we had just barely made it in on. I thought of calling Hertz and telling them the car had broken down, but it was hard to picture a tow truck pulling the car to safety. So back we went. On our return journey it was worse for Larissa, as she was now sitting on the outside staring into the void, and crashing waves, below. Come to think of it, it’s probably always worse for Larissa.

Driving the Ring of Valentia

Ring-of-Valentia-Island-map

Despite our heart pounding experience we highly recommend driving the Ring of Valentia on Valentia Island, as long as you stick to real roads. From the west end of the island, off in the distance the craggy peaks of Skellig Michael loom over the Atlantic Ocean. This vista is familiar to anyone who saw the closing scene of Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens when (spoiler alert) a grizzled Luke Skywalker finally makes his appearance. (Note the helpful Star Wars logo on the tourist map above.)

Nearby there’s also an interesting display that commemorates the first trans-Atlantic telegraph cable. It started out from this spot in 1866. Back in the day, this event was as significant as the modern-day birth of the internet.

 

28581550060_131210d7e7_mLarissa and Michael are your typical middle-aged couple from Philadelphia who’ve been traveling the world full-time since 2011, seeking off-beat, historic and tasty sights. To receive our free quarterly newsletter with updates and valuable travel tips subscribe here.

 

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When we first heard about driving the Loneliest Road in America—otherwise known as U.S. Highway 50—that crosses the barren hinterlands of central Nevada, we were intrigued. In a 1986 article for Life Magazine, the American Automobile Association had this to day about it:

“There are no points of interest. We don’t recommend it. We warn all motorists not to drive there unless they’re confident of their survival skills.”

Yikes! They make the road sound like something from a Hank Williams song. Well, once we heard that, we just had to see for ourselves if their description was true . . . or perhaps prove it wrong.

Nevada state tourism has embraced the once-derogatory moniker of "The Loneliest Road" with special road signs

Historic road through mountain passes

Decades before the Interstate Highway System was built,  two-lane U.S. 50 was the primary route across Nevada, linking its Utah and California borders. It’s also an historic road: it was once part of the Lincoln Highway—America’s first transcontinental route—that was proposed in 1913 to connect New York and San Francisco. Fifty years earlier the Pony Express also crisscrossed this path.

Crossing from Utah into Nevada on US Route 50 at a desolate gas station.

We started out at the Utah/Nevada border, at what may well be the “Loneliest Gas Station in America,” and, like all good pioneers, headed west. We were tracing the path of the early settlers who passed in Conestoga wagons without the benefit of power steering, GPS or extra horsepower under the hood. Tumbleweeds and the remnants of scattered vegetation provided some color as we set off into the Great Basin Desert.

Unexpectedly we started climbing over a 7,000-foot elevation mountain pass in what became a pattern on this roller coaster drive. Stone markers indicating a portion of the historic Lincoln Highway that shares the Loneliest Road in Nevada were installed by the Boy Scouts in 1928 to aid motorists and commemorate America's first transcontinental route.Upon reaching the peak the straight, two-lane road swooped down into a vast prairie before disappearing into the next mountain range 30 miles down the road. In total the drive undulates through seven high desert valleys, providing an array of earth tones and sage greens that form a soft contrast to the vivid blue Nevada sky dotted with stark white cumulus clouds.

The Lincoln Highway joins Highway 50 in the former railroad hub of Ely, 65 miles west of the Utah state line. You can still see remnants of that historic route in the form of concrete signposts marked with an “L”; the Boy Scouts of America placed them there in 1928 to guide motorists while commemorating the road’s namesake, Abraham Lincoln. However, with the vast desert stretching to the horizon on either side of the road, it would take one very confused driver to get lost here.

Old trains, vintage opera houses and mid-century neon

Ely hosts one of the biggest attractions along Highway 50: the Nevada Northern Railroad Museum. The 56-acre historic train yard and depot have been restored to how they looked in 1907, when local copper mines filled the burgeoning need for telephone and electrical lines in America. Visitors can even ride on a train powered by a circa 1910 Baldwin steam locomotive that was built in Philadelphia.

Two "campers" who spend their vacation tinkering with trains at the Nevada Railroad Museum in Ely, Nevada along the state's Loneliest Road

An elderly gentleman clad in striped denim overalls, sporting a glorious white beard and hoisting a giant monkey wrench mentioned he was one of the campers at the museum. Somewhat confused, we found out the museum offers its own version of a “fantasy camp”: a weeklong session where adult train geeks can tinker on actual equipment.

The Hotel Nevada, along Nevada's Loneliest Road in the town of Ely, remains little changed from 70 years ago.

77 miles farther west, the silver-and-lead mining town of Eureka bills itself as the “Friendliest Town on the Loneliest Road.” In the 1880s, when the smelters were cranking out at full speed, it was named “The Pittsburgh of the West.” With an ornate circa 1879 opera house and museum in the former offices of one of Nevada’s oldest newspapers, The Eureka Sentinel, which was founded in 1870 during the mining boom, Eureka could easily serve as a Western movie set.

The Victorian-era buildings that line the main street of Eureka, Nevada are a well-preserved testament to the once-bustling commerce along the Loneliest Road

Ghost towns and ancient stones

Lovers of ghost towns—and all things abandoned—will love this drive. All along the Loneliest Road, just over the hill to the north or south intrepid souls will find the vestiges of life once lived with gusto. Two miles outside of Eureka, the former mining hamlet of Ruby Hill lies abandoned to the elements. Some of the corrugated tin-roofed buildings scattered along a small gully still house the furniture of prior residents–a sobering reminder of why these are called ghost towns. Among the silvery juniper bushes and piñon trees, cactus flowers blooming in bright fuchsia provide vivid splashes of color.

The abandoned ghost town of Ruby Hill lies just off the Loneliest Road outside of Eureka, Nevada

Midway across the state, Route 50 shakes hands a few times with the path of the old Pony Express. A handful of crumbling stations are still hunched over by the roadside. This area is desolate even now, imagine the plight of the lonely mail rider galloping through during the service’s brief life?

On the eastern outskirts of Fallon, the desert yields an archaeological surprise close to the road. At Grimes Point, a quarter-mile walking trail reveals rust-colored basalt boulders marked by geometric petroglyphs of circles and wavy lines, some of which were struck almost 3,000 years ago by indigenous peoples. Even more remarkable considering the parched desert environs, going back 12 millennia this spot was 400 feet below the surface of a lake.

Petroglyphs from 3,000 years ago offer an intriguing diversion at Grimes Point, along Nevada's Loneliest Road

F-18s and freedom ringing

The town of Fallon is perched at the western terminus of the “lonely” portion of highway that Life magazine referred to in 1986. Known as the oasis of Nevada (which admittedly isn’t saying much), Fallon boasts a rare patch of green in the state and is famous for its luscious cantaloupes and as the home of Fallon Naval Air Station, where the pilots made famous in the movie Top Gun now train; it’s not unusual to see (or rather hear) a pair of F-18 Hornets roaring overhead.

Sand Mountain, a 600-foot tall sand dune, sits alongside the Loneliest Road, just east of Fallon, Nevada.

Nearing the California state line, motorists will note an incongruous sight in the capital of Carson City. In front of the Nevada State Museum there’s a full-sized replica of the Liberty Bell. In 1950 one was given to each state as part of a U.S. Savings Bond drive. But why does the bell look so much different than the original that is displayed in Philadelphia? This one lacks the famous crack.

A replica of the Liberty Bell--from a 1950s US Savings Bond drive, occupies pried of place in Carson City, Nevada along the Loneliest Road

At this point, we were ready to let freedom ring ourselves. We had driven the length of The Loneliest Road and lived to tell the tale. Though there were indeed some desolate stretches, there’s a particular beauty in the landscape along with haunting sights of a bygone era. It’s well worth the journey.

Pick up a "passport" to chart your progress along Nevada's Loneliest RoadNote: Rather than grouse at the slur on their character, the towns that form the bone-dry vertebrae along the spine of the Loneliest Road chose to make the best of it. They created a passport-like “Official Highway 50 Survival Guide” that highlights points of interest on the route. Intrepid travelers who have it stamped at stations along the way qualify for an “I Survived Highway 50” certificate and souvenir upon completion. Now what could be better than that?

Like it? Share it . . .Pin it!US Route 50 across Nevada--the so-called "Loneliest Road in America"--offers a glimpse into the past, along with stunning scenery

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It was the summer of 1969 and, as Old Faithful was about to send its regular timed flume of scalding hot water about 140 feet into the air for a spectacular sunset performance, the crowds gathered in hushed anticipation. The geyser had been doing so like clockwork for eons and was one of the main attractions of Yellowstone National Park.

Old Faithful geyser scheduleMeanwhile, a nine-year-old Mike Milne (your humble storyteller) had somehow locked himself into the bathroom of the room he was sharing with his family at the Old Faithful Inn; mere steps from the geyser. They were on the trip of a lifetime and this was the moment they had been waiting for, save for a recalcitrant key that had somehow become jammed in the lock. As his older brother wailed from outside—“C’mon, we’re gonna miss it!”—the pudgy young lad (who also wore glasses, he was quite a dreamboat back then) struggled with the key, but to no avail. He didn’t get to witness Old Faithful on that fateful day and, like General Douglas MacArthur, vowed to someday return.

Decades later Yellowstone has become one of the most popular destinations in America as streaming caravans of tourists make their way to the rugged sight: Yellowstone is the fourth most visited national park, with over 4 million visitors per year. During Michael’s first visit in 1969 the park was popular, but nothing like this. Low cost airfare and a more mobile society have created massive crowds during the summer. But Yellowstone is magical—and relatively empty—in the fall, a season that’s perfect for snuggling up to a warm fire in the lodge and donning the first cozy sweater of the season.

Chromatic pool visiting Yellowstone in the fall

The park itself is aflame with the blazing leaves of quaking aspen, bigleaf maple, and cottonwood trees turning a brilliant yellow, and seems to operate on a slower pace. Deprived of the manic energy of all the summer visitors, it follows the lead of its grizzly bears and starts settling down for a long winter’s slumber.

Yellowstone Park waterfall

We visited in early October, just a week before most of the park closed for the year. This off-season period is the perfect time to enjoy the sights that make Yellowstone justly famous, without struggling for elbow-room while you do so. It’s worth noting that many of the park’s lodging options have also closed for the season by this point, so unless you reserve months ahead at one of the few lodges still open, you’ll have to stay outside the park. Fortunately, there are several routes to take into Yellowstone, with the towns nearby each offering their own flavor of Western life and good food and lodging options.

Buffalo Bill Museum of the West

Fifty miles from Yellowstone’s East Entrance, Cody, Wyoming transports visitors back to cowboy times. The town, founded by “Buffalo Bill” Cody, offers the spectacular Buffalo Bill Center of the West, a collection of five national-caliber museums under one roof. A member of the Smithsonian Affiliations program, it’s hard to imagine a better place to round out your Western education. Whether your interests are natural history, firearms, the local indigenous people, Western art or Buffalo Bill himself, you’ll find something to get you in the cowboy spirit.

Yellowstone park in fall buffalo

Note: This photo was taken with a zoom lens. Do NOT get close to the wildlife!

A day driving through the northern regions of the park took us past stunning vistas for which the park is justifiably famous. With virtually no one else on the road, we were able to explore at leisure. Occasionally, we’d spot a few cars pulled over by the side of the road, a familiar signal that there was wildlife in the vicinity to view. The bison proved particularly photogenic, especially when they chose to stop in the middle of the road and not budge for several minutes. We hadn’t seen any elk . . . until dusk.

45th parallel sign Yellowstone Park

A few hundred of them (yes, hundred) crossed our path, as we were leaving the park just after sunset. We bunked in for the night in the tiny hamlet of Gardiner, Montana, which sits just across the state line at the park’s Northern Entrance. Gardiner gives visitors a glimpse of life in days gone by, with only a few buildings and small motels lining the streets, many of which are unpaved. Later that night, that same herd of elk paid us a visit, moseying down the streets of Gardiner as if looking for their own room for the night.

Jackson wyoming antlers in park

From the southern approach, the town of Jackson offers the most sophisticated taste of the West near Yellowstone National Park. The village is located in the valley of Jackson Hole about 60 miles south of the park’s South Entrance, a drive that passes through Grand Teton National Park, with its breathtaking views of those rugged peaks.

Moose walking in jackson Wyoming

Jackson attracts high-end visitors who seek comfort mingled with a dose of ruggedness in their travels, which might explain the moose calf ambling along the side of the road as we drove into town. Our room at Spring Creek Ranch, perched high above the valley with the Grand Tetons in the distance, made Michael observe that the town had come a long way since his first visit, when the airport gates were literally two wooden gates, like you’d find in someone’s backyard.

Spring Creek Ranch Jackson Wyoming

The view from Spring Creek Ranch.

Meanwhile, back at Yellowstone we made our way to Old Faithful, located mere steps from the Old Faithful Inn with the balky bathroom door. (In Michael’s youthful memory it was over a mile, but whatever.) The geyser is showing its age a bit and is not quite as “faithful” as it used to be, emitting its scalding steam within a small range of times now. The crowds awaiting the sunset display were speaking in hushed tones, as if they too had succumbed to the languid rhythm of the final week of the season at Yellowstone. A small burst of steam shot into the sky, followed by the full force of the geyser. The setting sun turned the watery display into crystals jetting across the sky. It was magical, and more than made up for the 45-year wait.

Larissa Michael Milne Old faithful geyser

Decades later little Mikey Milne finally gets to see Old Faithful erupt.

Visitor Information:

28581550060_131210d7e7_mLarissa and Michael are your typical middle-aged couple from Philadelphia who’ve been traveling the world full-time since 2011, seeking off-beat, historic and tasty sights. To receive our free quarterly newsletter with updates and valuable travel tips subscribe here.

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As we’ve been driving around the country seeking ghost towns we came across one that was unusual; the California City ghost town has a population of over 14,000 people so why would it be considered a ghost town?

California City ghost town welcome sign

A bit of background first. California City is a massive planned community that was carved out by developer Nat Mendelsohn in the heart of the Mojave Desert in southern California. That was back in the 1950s when it seemed like you couldn’t go wrong investing in California real estate, even if it was just sand. Mendelsohn was quite optimistic so the city he built is so big geographically that it’s the 3rd largest city by area in the Golden State and one of the largest in the country. That’s awfully big for the number of people who actually moved there.

California City street sign

Streets were put in and infrastructure for the large city was constructed. But then the market spoke and it turned out there weren’t enough people who wanted to live in the remote location.

California City ghost town

Driving around California City today there are people and schools and all the trappings of a small town. But the eerie edges yield to empty streets and the harsh desert pretty quickly.

California City ghost town street sign houses

On the bright side, neighbors don’t have to worry about being too crowded and there are a few steady employment opportunities in the area: Edwards Air Force Base and a prison, among other things. One other “growth” area seems to be the proliferation of real estate offices. After all, they have plenty of plots of land to sell.

California City real estate office

California City is located only 100 miles north of downtown Los Angeles so it’s an easy road trip if you’re in Southern California.

California City ghost town

Here are Amazon’s top books about California travel
If you make it to California City you’re only 30 miles west of Boron, California, home of the Rio Tinto Boron Mine, which is the largest open-pit mine in California and the largest boron mine in the world. If you’re familiar with 20 Mule Team Borax, this is where it comes from.

Borax Mine Visitor Center

There is a free Borax visitor center that includes a museum and overlook of the mine which is actually quite fascinating. If you’re in the area it’s worth visiting.

Route 66 El Rancho Motel sign Barstow California

And once you’re in Boron you’re only 40 miles west of Barstow, one of the scenic sights on the old Route 66 and the spot where it turns south to head into Los Angeles for its final stretch. That’s the fun thing about road trips, wherever you go there’s always something else to see just over the horizon.



28581550060_131210d7e7_mLarissa and Michael are your typical middle-aged couple from Philadelphia who’ve been traveling the world full-time since 2011, seeking off-beat, historic and tasty sights. To receive our free quarterly newsletter with updates and valuable travel tips subscribe here.

Transfagarasan Highway signBrakes? Check. Map? Check. No fear? Check.  We were about to drive on the  Transfăgărășan Highway, made legendary by the BBC program Top Gear as one of the world’s great road trips. The winding, twisting road carries intrepid drivers over the Carpathian  Mountains back to Bucharest from Transylvania. Picture what a plate of spaghetti thrown against a wall looks like and you’ll have a good idea of this tribute to automotive spunk.

The road was built in the early 1970s under the command of former dictator Nicolae Ceaușescu, apparently as a monument to himself. Beginning in alpine forests it looks like it was designed by an engineer with a severe chip on his shoulder before reaches a bucolic alpine meadow.

drive on the Transfagarasan Highway

Although the road is only 56 miles long it boasts dozens of hairpin turns and switchbacks (we lost count) that resemble a giant alimentary canal. Drivers soon note that guardrails are few and far between as the Transfagarasan climbs to its peak of almost 6,700 feet to reach the pristine glacial waters of Bâlea Lake.

Transfagarasan Highway curve

Fortunately as the driver I got to sit near the centerline during our drive on the Transfagarasan Highway, while Larissa had to stare out the window at the yawning chasms beyond the road’s shoulder.

People sitting on guardrail on Transfagarasan Highway

At this overlook that offers the best photo op (notice the road twisting off into the distance) people like to get out and stretch their legs. We met this nice group of Romanian retirees who were out for a Sunday drive.

Vidraru Dam Transfagarasan Highway

Vidraru Dam Romania

On the down stretch towards Bucharest one of the highlights is driving across the 540-foot-high Vidraru dam, one of the tallest in Europe.

Statue of Electricity Transfagarasan Highway

A shiny metal statue of Prometheus wielding a lighting bolt rises to the skies above the dam. Also known as the “Statue of Electricity,” it’s a remembrance of an era of massive industrial projects in the communist country.

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The Transfăgărășan can cause a few testy moments between the driver and the passenger, who sits on the outer edge staring down into the abyss. But it was better for me to drive because as Larissa will tell you, I make a lousy passenger.

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You never know what you’ll come across during a drive on the Transfagarasan Highway. The photo above is of a random German motorcyclist giving us a thumbs up as he drives by with an inflatable doll strapped to the back of his bike. Oh those crazy Germans.

Transfagarasan Highway

After arriving safely in Bucharest we treated ourselves to some tasty Romanian pastries.

Pin it!Romania's Transfagarasan Highway is a must-drive for road trip lovers!

Information for a drive on the Transfagarasan Highway

Location: When driving north start out in the town of Curtea de Arges, about 100 miles northwest of Bucharest via route E81. If you’re taking the road south like we did start your journey in Cartisoara, south of route E68

Open: The Transfagarasan Highway is usually closed from late October through May due to snow. For a full description and tips for this road trip go to drive the Transfagarasan Highway.

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The San Andreas Fault at Parkfield California

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The town of Parkfield, California sits astride the San Andreas Fault and proudly bills itself as “The Earthquake Capital of the World.” On the water tower outside the Parkfield Cafe they even declare “Be here when it happens.”

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Parkfield California population signThe remote town in central California (about 200 miles from both San Francisco and Los Angeles) consists of less than two dozen full-time residents, but that number swells when scientists from the United States Geological Survey visit their on-site monitoring unit. The unit is part of something called the Parkfield Experiment, a long-term earthquake research project that records seismic activity to help predict when the “Big One” will strike the Golden State.

According to the USGS website which reports on the Parkfield Experiment:

“Moderate-size earthquakes of about magnitude 6 have occurred on the Parkfield section of the San Andreas fault at fairly regular intervals – in 1857, 1881, 1901, 1922, 1934, and 1966. If such characteristic ruptures occur regularly, then the next quake would have been due before 1993.”

As you know, it is now 2015 so the next one seems a bit overdue.

One of the highlights of a visit to Parkfield is the bridge straddling the San Andreas Fault which separates the North American and Pacific plates of the earth’s crust. Signs at either end of the bridge even note that you are entering the North American Plate or the Pacific Plate. The bridge has shifted five feet in the last 80 years, which is evident when looking at the piers, but local residents take it all in stride.

San andreas fault shifting bridge Parkfield

As we were taking photos of the bridge a grizzled old farmer pulled up in his Ford pickup truck and yelled over at us, “You know, it’s all your fault!” At first I thought we had done something wrong until I got the gallows humor and gave him a wave.

San Andreas fault Parkfield California bridge

It seemed to make his day as he roared with laughter and drove off. I wonder how many unsuspecting visitors he gets with that line.

Here some popular books about California earthquakes.

Visiting the San Andreas Fault

We were only in an earthquake once, oddly enough in Philadelphia during the Virginia earthquake of 2011 that was carried up the East Coast and damaged the Washington Monument. Do you have any earthquake experience to share?

We’re global nomads who have been traveling the world since 2011 seeking off-beat, historic and tasty sights. To receive monthly updates and valuable travel tips subscribe here.

In Don McLean’s song American Pie, he refers to the death of rock-and-roll star Buddy Holly on February 3, 1959 due to a plane crash in an Iowa cornfield as “the day the music died.” Earlier Holly had played a concert at the Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake, Iowa. The gig was part of a chaotic Winter Dance Party tour that included Ritchie Valens and J.P. “Big Bopper” Richardson, who also perished in the crash along with their 21-year-old pilot, Roger Peterson. buddy holly stamp (250x202)There were only three seats on the plane, enough for Holly and his bandmates. But Holly’s bass player Waylon Jennings gave up his seat to Richardson who was suffering from the flu. Reportedly the 17-year-old Valens won his place on the plane due to a coin toss. The plane crashed only a few miles from Mason City Airport due to poor weather and pilot error. Surf ballroom stage (800x596)

Today there’s a poignant memorial at the crash site while the Surf Ballroom is still an active concert venue attracting the likes of ZZ Top and the Beach Boys. It’s even been designated a Historic Rock and Roll Landmark by the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. To pay tribute to Holly and this piece of musical history start out at the Surf Ballroom’s museum.

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With its tropical themed murals, original maple dance floor, colorful awnings and green vinyl booths, it looks pretty much the same as it did in 1959. Check out the tropical fish details on the wooden booths where the South Seas motif was carried over. On harsh winter nights in northern Iowa thoughts of sun, sand and surf must provide quite an escape. Surf Ballroom museum (800x549)

The former Cypress Room where performers would take a break between sets is now a museum filled with memorabilia related to Holley, Valens, Richardson and the history of the Surf Ballroom. You’ll be surprised at all the famous people who have played here. Afterwards climb up onto the stage where Holly performed. I had my guitar with me and the accommodating ballroom staff even allowed me to strum a few tunes.

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The “Green Room,” where performers wait before their show, was where Valens bet on the fateful coin toss that got him a seat on the plane. The walls are covered with hundreds of signatures of people who’ve played here, along with prominent visitors, giving the room the appearance of a Jackson Pollock painting.

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Since Iowa is such a key state during presidential election years politicos often stop by too. Barack Obama signed the wall in 2008 but we couldn’t find his autograph. Though we did see Kevin Costner who has played here several times with his band. If you’ve seen The Buddy Holly Story you’ll recognize the pay phone on the way out. It’s the original one that was used after the concert by Buddy Holly to call his wife Maria. Buddy Holly crash site glasses memorial (800x617)

After leaving the Surf Ballroom you’ll want to complete your pilgrimage by heading to the Memorial Site that’s about five miles north. (See directions below.) A giant pair of signature black Buddy Holly glasses mark the spot to stop on Gull Avenue. Many people think this is the memorial so they take a few photos of it and leave. But it’s just a marker. The actual crash site with the memorial is about 200 yards into the cornfield on private ground. Fortunately the farmer who owns the property respects the historical significance of the site and leave a swath unplanted to allow pedestrian access.

Buddy Holly crash site memorial (800x646)

Walk along the south side of the fence until you find a metal sculpture of a guitar marked with the names of the three musicians along with three records naming their popular hits: Peggy Sue, Chantilly Lace and Donna. Don’t miss the poignant tribute off to the side, a set of pilots wings emblazoned with the name of the plane’s pilot, Roger Peterson. Visitors still come from all over the world to the site. On our visit there was a bouquet of flowers and note left by a fan from Sweden. It’s really a touching place to visit. After you leave it helps to have some upbeat Buddy Holly tunes to play in the car.

I’m a-gonna tell you how it’s gonna be

You’re gonna give your love to me

A love to last a-more than one day

A love that’s love – not fade away

A well, a-love that’s love – not fade away

~ Buddy Holly, Not Fade Away

Visitor information for Surf Ballroom and Museum

Web site: www.SurfBallroom.com

Location: 460 North Shore Drive, Clear Lake, IA 50428

Hours: Year-round: Monday through Friday, 8 a.m. to 4 p.m.; Additional summer hours: Saturday, 9 a.m. to 1 p.m.; Sunday, 1 p.m. to 4 p.m.

Admission: $5

Directions to Memorial Site: At the Surf Ballroom they hand out directions to the memorial site. That follows a long stretch of gravel road which you might not want to take. Here are alternative directions to the memorial site. GPS coordinates are: N 43° 13′ 12″  W 93° 23′ 0″

Urban legend debunked: According to musical folklore, American Pie was the name of the plane but there’s no truth to this.

Video of the memorial site: [youtube]http://youtu.be/oMySrIHnxlM[/youtube]

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It’s that time of year with Halloween approaching that we start thinking of all things haunted. Here are 10 of the spookiest ghost towns in America, places that were once thriving but are now abandoned. A visit to any one of them is intriguing, desolate . . . and more than a little spooky.

Picher, Oklahoma

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The nearby lead mine was the primary local employer until lead waste from the adjacent slagheap began to sprinkle the town with toxic dust. In 2006 the town was declared a Superfund site and almost everyone moved away. Driving through Picher’s deserted streets it feels as though everyday life was interrupted for an air raid drill: the abandoned school mascot — the gorilla — forlornly oversees empty homes, churches and storefronts. Here’s a story with more about Picher, Oklahoma.

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Love Canal, Niagara Falls, NY

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This neighborhood near the Niagara River became notorious in the 1970s and 80s for toxic waste dumped by the nearby Hooker Chemical plant. The effect on the local residents’ health spearheaded the environmental Superfund cleanup program in the US. The houses were torn down, but remnants of the neighborhood still remain; weed-riddled sidewalks to nowhere provide an eerie remembrance of a once thriving suburb.

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Rodney, Mississippi

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Photo by Natalie Maynor.

In the 19th and early 20th centuries Rodney was a prosperous port on the Mississippi River. The river changed course, drying up the port — and Rodney’s livelihood — along with it. The town is literally a “ghost”; in 1930 the governor decommissioned it as a municipal entity. Officially Rodney no longer exists on maps. An eerie drive off the main road through trees dripping with kudzu vines and over a somewhat shaky bridge will get you to the few remaining buildings, including a Civil War-era church and a handful of houses and shops.

Centralia, Pennsylvania

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This was a booming mining town until an underground coal seam caught fire in 1962. A seemingly endless supply of fuel snaking deep into the earth makes the fire impossible to extinguish; it’s been burning for over 50 years now and is slowly moving towards the cemetery. The underground inferno has killed all vegetation at the surface and made living in Centralia hazardous. The town is almost entirely abandoned but the street grid, sidewalks and driveways remain; a drive down the abandoned main street reveals cracks in the ground where smoke plumes snake out. Recently a time capsule that had been somewhat optimistically buried in 1966 was opened but the contents were flooded. Such has been the luck of Centralia.
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Surfridge, California

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Since it sits underneath the runways of Los Angeles International Airport, this may be the noisiest ghost town in America. Surfridge was a housing development in the 1920s that took advantage of a glorious view overlooking the Pacific Ocean. At the time the airport was a small field that serviced propeller driven craft. With the advent of jet engines the runways needed to be expanded and Surfridge was history, its residents dispersed. In an odd twist the streets remain so savvy airline passengers will notice it if they look the window. You better hurry to see this one, last time we checked they were ripping the old roads out to restore the dunes to their natural state.

Lobo, Texas

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This former railroad town in the West Texas desert was finally abandoned in 1961. Behind barbed wire fences visitors can still see the remnants of homes, a filling station and a roadside motel. Its location right on I-90 makes it one of the more accessible of America’s ghost towns, well that is if you happen to be driving in this remote spot. The town has recently been purchased and even hosted a film festival in 2014. No word if they just showed scary movies.

Pioche, Nevada

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While the town is occupied by a few hardy souls, there are abandoned mine heads on the outskirts of town and an old-fashioned Boot Hill cemetery. That cemetery filled up quickly as over 70 residents died from shootings before one met the hereafter naturally. The aerial tramway resembling a ski-lift that carried ore from underground still floats eerily over the town, with rusty buckets dangling precariously in the wind.

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Ruby Hill Mine, Eureka, Nevada

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Along Route 50 in central Nevada, known as the Loneliest Road in America, there are many ghost towns to visit. Most of them are former mining towns that were abandoned when the underground riches ran dry. Ruby Hill Mine is located a few miles south of Eureka, one of the only stops on Route 50. There are several intact buildings with interiors that are still furnished.

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Camp Hearne, Hearne, Texas

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Containing some of the last remnants of a World War II POW camp in North America, Camp Hearne once housed German prisoners from Rommel’s Africa Corps. The temporary barracks were removed after the war but concrete foundations peek out through the brush, along with rows of fire hydrants standing sentinel in the parched grass field. A small museum on the site displays relics of the POW days. Particularly chilling are documentation of Nazi terrorism within the prisoners’ ranks, including the murder of one ambivalent German, whose ghost is said to still haunt the camp.

Camp Hunt, Idaho

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In the months following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, the West Coast of America was in a frenzy over a possible attack on the mainland. One of the responses was to round up all people of Japanese descent, many of whom were American citizens, and ship them off to “relocation centers” in the heartland. One of the few surviving examples is the Minidoka Japanese Internment Camp in Idaho. There are several intact wooden buildings and coils of rusted barbed wire eerily snaking its way through the camp. The site is now an unstaffed unit of the National Park Service; its remote location and bleak location conjure up the spirits of its former involuntary residents.

Minidoka japanese internment camp Idaho entrance

What other ghost towns have you visited?

Further reading: Here’s our more detailed story about Centralia, Pennsylvania.

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Memphis is a city oozing with musical spirits, with the ghost of Elvis Presley topping the list. Although most people know Memphis as Elvis’ home at the peak of his career, it’s also the city where he grew up.

Perched on a bluff high above the Mississippi River, midway between Chicago and New Orleans, Memphis has for over 100 years been a melting pot of musical genres. Throughout the past century Delta Blues, Gospel, Jazz and Country music drifted into this port town, cooking up a musical stew that would eventually simmer into and Rock and Roll.

To gain an appreciation of the musical atmosphere that helped to form the future “King of Rock and Roll”, explore the Memphis of Elvis’ youth.  The best way evoke the past is to climb into a 1955 Cadillac and cruise the city streets in search of memories. Ride along with Tad Pierson of American Dream Safari for a journey back in time. Bouncing on the vast bench seats with the windows down and the AM radio playing hits from 60 years ago, you’ll soon feel immersed in the 1950’s.

ghost of elvis tour tad pierson lomo-Michael Milne

Along the way you’ll visit Lauderdale Courts, the public housing project where the Presley family lived during Elvis’ teen years. You can imagine him sitting on the front stoop on a hot summer night, strumming idly on a beat-up guitar.  Nearby is Humes High School, were a young “Elvis Prestley” first performed in public, winning the school talent show in 1953. It’s ironic that his own school would misspell his name in the program.

ghost of elvis sun studio-Michael Milne

Cruise past juke joints and barbecue shacks, where the succulent aroma of Memphis ribs offers what Pierson likes to call “psychic souvenirs”.  Glide past Lansky’s clothiers and Beale Street where Elvis would develop his signature clothing style. Take a few moments to stop outside Sun Studios, and picture an 18-year-old lad timidly purchasing a session to record a song for his mother’s birthday.

ghost of elvis outside Memphis Hotel Chisca Michael Milne (1280x990)

But nowhere does Elvis’ presence seem to linger more than outside the Chisca Hotel.  Now vacant and decidedly downtrodden, the Chisca was once the site of the famous “Red, Hot and Blue” radio show. It was here on the evening of July 7, 1954 that host Dewey Phillips first played Elvis’ “That’s All Right Mama”, sending Memphis listeners wild. The phone rang off the hook that night, and Phillips would end up playing the song 14 times in a few hours. Sitting in a big old Caddy across from the Chisca, with the warm summer breeze drifting through the open windows, it is easy to envision the future King lounging against the side of the building, snapping his fingers to the beat.

Thanks to Tad Pierson for showing us this unique slice of Memphis. To arrange your own American Dream Safari call Tad at 901-428-3602.

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Whenever you take a road trip it’s important to set up some rules of the road.  A simple road trip tip (or seven) can keep a dream drive from turning into a nightmare.  You want wide-open spaces and adventure, not wrong turns and flat tires.

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Michael and I have taken road trips on five continents, and we’ve made our share of mistakes. But we’ve learned a few things along the way; following a few of these simple road trip tips can make sure your ride goes smoothly:

Road trip tip #1:  Delegate Responsibilities

Will you share driving duties?  Will one of you drive while the other navigates?  Who is responsible for tracking expenses or booking lodging? There is no right or wrong way, but unless you have a mutual understanding of whom does what your road trip will hit a pothole pretty quickly.

Road trip tip #2:  Map it out

Nothing ruins a trip faster than getting hopelessly lost.  Make sure you have a good old-fashioned paper copy map, and you know your route options. GPS and phone apps are great when seeking a specific destination, but they won’t give you an overall sense of the area, and those tiny screens can become tedious. In remote areas it’s also possible that mobile phone coverage will either be unavailable or limited to voice-only calling.

generic motel

Road trip tip #3:  Sleep on it 

Regardless of whether you’re staying in a hotel, an RV or a tent it’s a good idea to know where you’ll be laying your head that night. Enjoying a relaxing evening ensures you’ll be refreshed for the next day’s drive.  Putting on an extra miles looking for a place to stop when you’re tired at the end of a long day is draining. Camping by the side of a busy road or getting the last motel room (next to the dumpster) doesn’t exactly promote sweet dreams.

Road trip tip #4:  Let yourself wander

When on a road trip the journey is the destination, which means you should indulge your curiosity along the way. Be realistic about the distance you plan to cover in a day and remember:  it’s the little detours and unscheduled stops that make the trip fun.

Dudes Steakhouse WYoming (575x443)

Road trip tip #5:  Food for thought

Depending on where you’re headed, dining options on the road will vary greatly and grumbling stomachs can cause grumpy conversations.  Consider packing a picnic lunch, and keep a few nibbles on hand to stave off hunger and make sure those freewheeling spirits stay high. Be sure to have plenty of water as well.

Road trip tip #6:  Off and running

When you’re 100 miles from anywhere it is not a good time to discover you’re about to run out of gas or you don’t know how to use the jack to change your flat tire. You don’t have to be a master mechanic, but it’s common sense to know a few basics about the vehicle that is a major part of your holiday.

Road trip tip #7:  Music to your ears

There’s something fundamental that links music to a trip on the open road.  Whether it’s “Born to be Wild” by Steppenwolf, Beethoven’s 9th Symphony or anything in between, be sure to bring music you love. It will enhance the experience while you’re driving, and the soundtrack of your trip will trigger fond memories every time you hear it.

What are some of your favorite road trip tips?

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There is no better classic American road trip than a drive on Route 66 from Chicago to Santa Monica, California. Although much of the road has been replaced by interstates, there are still plenty of spots to drive on the old rutted concrete surface and seek out the tasty and the offbeat.

One of my favorites is a run-down section in northeast Oklahoma where Route 66 is a one lane highway. Now that’s not a single lane in each direction but a single lane in total. When cars arrive from opposite directions they have to pull over onto the shoulder to let the other one pass by.

When I first heard about this quirk I though it was some type of urban, or in this case rural, legend. How could the famous “Mother Road” in which so many Okies fled Dust Bowl-era Oklahoma for California have been only a solitary lane? Surely by now that situation had been fixed, right? Well, as it turns out, wrong.

one lane route 66 oklahoma

In an area just south of Miami, Oklahoma Route 66 turns into a “ribbon road,” at 9 feet wide it’s more like a large sidewalk. Back in the 1920s the state of Oklahoma was trying to save money building Route 66. They figured if they built it half as wide they’d spend half as much money. (Fortunately they didn’t apply the same philosophy to bridges and build them half as long.)

With the help of a detailed guidebook, Route 66: EZ 66 Guide for Travelers by Jerry McClanahan, I found the single-lane stretch. Motoring along the pitted road and kicking up dust from the orange clay, I felt like I was back in the 1920s.

The stretch of highway looked like the type of remote landscape that could hide outlaws like Bonnie & Clyde. It turns out that they often drove along Route 66 as they roamed throughout the area. In the last months of their lives they kidnapped the police chief in the nearby town of Commerce, Oklahoma.

commerce oklahoma route 66 old gas station

Even 28 years after officially passing out of existence, Route 66 still reveals new surprises to the curious road tripper. The “ribbon road” in Oklahoma is just one of many that make driving America’s Main Street so enticing.

walylans ku ku hamburgers miami

And if you’re hungry, and who isn’t after all that driving, head back to Miami and stop in at one of the great old-time burger joints: Waylan’s Ku Ku Burger. This joint’s been flipping patties for almost 50 years.

waylans ku ku burger route 66

Near this section of Route 66 is Picher, Oklahoma — a modern American ghost town.

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Is it possible to travel on your own in Africa?  I really wanted to go on a safari, but Michael’s not too big on nature stuff and neither of us like group tours.  The challenge was on: I needed to find a way for us to take a road trip, seeing Africa on a self-drive safari.

Many of the African countries popular for viewing wild game, such Kenya and Tanzania, caution against moving about the country on your own due to safety concerns. The result is group safaris. Usually bulky, uncomfortable overland vehicles that leave at the crack of dawn, cramming as much as possible into the day.  (Did I mention we really don’t like to get up early?)

Self-drive safari in Africa

Sleeping in is always an option on your own self-drive safari. We enjoyed a late breakfast at Ai Aiba Rockpainting Lodge after our solitary stroll amid the rock art.

To my delight I learned about Namibia. The 22-year-old nation on the southwest coast of Africa has developed a reputation as a safe spot for drive-yourself vacations. It offers an abundance of wild animals, a sterling national park system, and spectacular scenery.  It’s big and sparsely populated, larger than Texas with only ten percent of the people.

Self-drive safari in Africa

Not much traffic in sparsely populated Namibia.

Visitors typically begin in the capital city of Windhoek, flying in via Johannesburg or directly from Frankfurt, Germany on Air Namibia. Begin your road trip right at the airport. Pick up a rental car; almost all are 4-wheel drive SUVs or pick-ups. Namibia boasts excellent roads, but the well-marked secondary routes are gravel and the extra control and high clearance come in handy.

Self-drive safari in Africa

Driving on gravel roads or the signature red sands at Sossusvlei makes renting a 4-wheel drive vehicle a must in Namibia.

Namibia has stayed away from large-scale tourism. Most accommodation is of the “boutique” variety.  Whether lodges, tent camps or bed & breakfasts, all are perfect for a romantic stay. (Even the tent camps: we found one with a queen-sized bed and air-conditioning!) During our 3-week self-drive safari we stayed in a few of each. Our criterion of a double with en-suite was easy to find in all price ranges. We opted for 3-4 star quality, which cost us anywhere from $75/night with breakfast to about $250/night per couple, including breakfast and dinner. Prices were higher at more remote locations.

Self-drive safari in Africa

Our air-conditioned tent at Etosha Village-complete with queen-sized bed and open air shower-just outside of Etosha National Park.

The best part was that the entire trip was at our own pace. Self-drive also meant self-scheduling. We rose when we wanted and could spend as much time as we liked just absorbing Africa. During a pre-breakfast hike (which for us was 8:30) we searched for 500-year-old rock paintings of giraffes, and then turned to see a pack of live giraffes ambling by, oblivious to their portraits set in stone. Driving among the signature red dunes at Sossusvlei, we simply pulled to the side of the road for an impromptu picnic when the mood struck.

But nothing can compare to a drive all by yourself through the vast Etosha National Park to view wild game. Imagine rounding a bend on a dusty road to find a water hole with 30 elephants cavorting or another with a giraffe placidly taking refreshing sip, the two of you as the only observers.  Nature has invited you to a private showing, and it’s truly a “pinch me” moment. Even “I’m not a nature boy” was impressed.

Self-drive safari in Africa

It’s easy to get a great photo when you’re the only one around!

If you made it this far you might want to read how we avoided getting eaten by a lion in Namibia.

Planning:  There are several companies that can help you plan your self-drive holiday, however we chose to book our own. The Namibia Tourism Board publishes a comprehensive 200-page visitor’s guide that reviews sights, suggested itineraries, travel companies and lodging options. 

Getting There:  The capital city of Windhoek, which is just about in the geographic center of the country, is a great place to begin and end your safari. Most flights are routed through Johannesburg, however Air Namibia also offers one direct flight daily from Frankfurt, Germany.

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Ahh what a simpler time. When a recently minted ex-President could hop in the car with his wife and take a road trip, unescorted by any security, halfway across the country to visit his daughter and some friends.

Even though Harry Truman was the target of an assassination attempt while President, back then once you left the White House you truly were a private citizen and could move about unencumbered by security details and an entourage of personal assistants.

Harry Truman’s Excellent Adventure: The True Story of a Great American Road Trip by Mathew Algeo perfectly captures the 1950s, which was a time before ex-Presidents became money printing machines from speaking fees and board memberships.

In fact, Truman was rather poor. He hadn’t been in the Army long enough to claim a military pension and his Senate career was cut short to become Roosevelt’s Vice President so he missed out on that pension too. What a far cry from today when even a single term as a United States Senator guarantees a lobbying income for life.

harry truman driving car

The author retraced the trip himself, staying at some of the same hotels and eating at the same restaurants. He even met a few people who interacted with the Trumans along the way, including a police officer who stopped the couple for driving too slowly. Harry, who was a car buff and notorious speeder, had to agree to Bess’ rule that they obey the posted speed limit.

Although Truman left office with a 22% approval rating, people were eager to meet him and give him well wishes. He made a triumphant return to Washington where the press asked him for his impressions of the Eisenhower administration. Normally never one to mince words, Truman didn’t feel it was his place to judge the new president. Again, it was a simpler time.

28581550060_131210d7e7_mLarissa and Michael are your typical middle-aged couple from Philadelphia who’ve been traveling the world full-time since 2011, seeking off-beat, historic and tasty sights. To receive monthly updates and valuable travel tips subscribe here.

When we were driving all over the world we saw some unusual animal crossing signs that were different from the typical signs for deer we see at home. As we bounced along some pretty rough roads we took these warnings seriously, can you imagine the damage an elephant will do to your car?

camel crossing sign Jordan

Camel crossing signs are common when driving the Arabian Desert in Jordan. Fortunately all the camels we saw were behind fences.

animal crossing sign deer israel

Who knew they had reindeer in Israel, but it sort of makes sense. This sign is unusual because it’s in three languages: Hebrew, Arabic and English.

horse crossing sign dubai

In Dubai, horseback riding is a popular hobby among the Emirati. Apparently some of them break free now and then.

koala crossing sign australia

At the top of this post is a kangaroo crossing sign that is seen throughout Australia. You really have to take them seriously, particularly at dusk when the kangaroos go bounding across the road as if they are attracted to the car’s headlights and become “roo’d kill.” While the koala pictured above will do less damage, they are so cute that drivers really hope to avoid them.

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Drivers get two for one on this sign in the Australian Outback as they look out for cows and sheep.

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We’re not sure why these birds in New Zealand couldn’t just fly across the road.

elephant crossing road sign

Elephants were a common sight in Namibia. But they lumber along so slowly we doubt they’d be much of a problem.

warthog crossing road sign

We saw literally thousands of warthogs by the side of the road in Namibia. They are one of the funniest looking animals around. Smart too, unlike the kangaroos in Australia, we never saw a warthog crossing the road.

meerkat warning sign

Meerkats, similar to prairie dogs, are all over Namibia. We stayed at one lodge where a local meerkat was pretty tame and scurried around the restaurant.

zebra crossing sign namibia

A multi-purpose sign for zebras, warthogs and kudu on the Erongo Plain in Namibia.

wild animals Africa two giraffes crossing road (575x440)We didn’t see a giraffe crossing sign in Namibia, but we did have to stop for these actual giraffes.

Larissa crossing road Namibia (575x403)

Namibia is so sparsely populated we never saw a crossing sign for this rare animal.

bull crossing sign in spain

Cattle crossing signs are fairly common around the world but we liked how they rakishly add horns in Spain. Ole!

turtle crossing sign

Watch out speed racers for slow crossing turtles on Tybee Island in South Carolina.

abbey road zebra crossing

Well in London this is called a zebra crossing so it fits here. Can you guess what Fab road this is?

If you have any unusual animal crossing signs please send them to me and I’ll credit you and link back to you blog. Thanks!

We sought a break from the bustle of London at a remote cottage perched on the edge of Dartmoor; the legendary, perhaps haunted, bog in southwest England that achieved fame in novels such as The Hound of the Baskervilles. Our visions of long walks across the sun-dappled moor were washed out by two weeks of rain following the wettest spring on record; which, for England, is saying something. (It wasn’t until the end of our stay that we learned at a local tavern that Dartmoor is one of the soggiest places in the entire country.)

Determined to “keep calm and carry on” in the finest British tradition, we donned our raincoats and stiff upper lips, and explored the soggy countryside. The visitor’s center at Dartmoor National Park optimistically posted the weather forecast as “brightening;” which basically means “less clouds,” as good as it gets around here.

Dartmoor clouds black and white lomo (700x522) (575x429)

Perhaps the forecast was really more of a wish, as we hiked along a narrow country path the fog enveloped us like a damp cotton comforter and reduced visibility to arm’s length. Forget pea soup, this fog was more opaque than the can it came in. In the murky atmosphere we tried to erase from our minds the legend of the hairy beast that haunts the moors, carrying off wandering travelers.

After a mile or so a Gothic moss-covered stone building loomed out of the mist. We could just make out the letters “Dartmoor Prison” and, somewhat incongruously, a “Welcome visitors” sign. We had stumbled upon the only prison museum in England that is still attached to a working prison. We didn’t realize that it also contained a little known fact related to American military history.

Dartmoor prison entrance (549x625) copy

As we entered the museum, curator Brian Dingle recognized our accents and said, “I bet you didn’t know American prisoners of war were held here.” We immediately thought back to World War II, and wondered why American soldiers would be imprisoned by the British; but we were thinking of the wrong century, and the wrong war.

Built in 1806, Dartmoor Prison housed prisoners of war who had formerly been held on disease-ridden prison ships just off the coast. Among them were captured American soldiers and sailors from the War of 1812, alongside French prisoners from the Napoleonic Wars. Though there was one stark difference between the two groups; since the former colonists were considered traitors to the British Crown, they were treated worse than the French.

dartmoor prison

The Americans started arriving in 1813, leading to severe overcrowding; the cold, damp conditions became breeding grounds for disease. One American prisoner of war described the setting as, “An incredibly bleak place. It is either rainy, snowy or foggy the entire year round.”

The exhibits convey the history of the prison, alongside a gallery devoted to prisoner’s works of art. A section in the darker recesses displays contraband confiscated from the prisoners; including an escape rope assembled from bed sheets tied together to a grappling hook that was found quite recently. Given the dreary climate, it’s understandable why a prisoner’s thoughts would turn to escape.

On our way out of the museum the obliging Mr. Dingle popped up again and declared, “You must see the church up the road, after all, your people helped build it.” Another secret of the fog-shrouded moor was about to be revealed.

st michaels church dartmoor

If “idle hands are the devil’s workshop” the prisoners were put to use in a somewhat more pious endeavor. The Americans and French worked side-by-side building the Church of St. Michael and All Angels. Built from locally quarried granite, it sits atop one of the highest elevations of any church in the country; and bears the weatherworn marks of its windswept setting to prove it.

When we approached the churchyard it was so encased in fog that only the barest outlines of the chapel and surrounding cemetery were visible. We felt as if we had stumbled into a horror movie set. The appearance of each row of crumbling headstones, rising out of the haze like ranks of soldiers on parade, acted as spectral signposts pointing the way to the narthex. The chills set off as we walked through the cemetery were alleviated a bit inside.

st michaels church dartmoor war of 1812

At the only church in England built by American prisoners, amends have been made in the shape of the stained-glass East Window, a tribute to the American prisoners of war who died in captivity at Dartmoor Prison. Depicting scenes from the Passion of Christ, it was donated a century ago by the “National Society of United States Daughters of 1812,” a group dedicated to preserving the memory of those who fought in the war. In the chilly sanctuary, we lit votive candles and prayed for the 271 American soldiers who are buried nearby, some in the church cemetery and others behind the prison.

We walked out of the church and, as if on cue, the fog had lifted and the sun made a glorious appearance.  After a few days of doom and gloom, it took our eyes some time to adjust to the blinding bright sunshine. The church basked in the warm glow, grateful for a chance to dry out and put on a better appearance. Although its origins were grim, it has risen above its past to provide a place of solace and respite for those in need of it; and a refuge from the storm for travelers. Today it stands as a fitting memorial to the captured soldiers, many never to return home, who built it.

Dartmoor St Michaels Church (575x427)

This article originally appeared in the Philadelphia Inquirer on May 26th as a Memorial Day tribute.

Further information for visitors:

Dartmoor Prison Museum: www.dartmoor-prison.co.uk

Church of St. Michael and All Angels: www.visitchurches.org.uk

With a little planning it’s easy to drive on the left side of the road. On our around-the-world journey we spent more time driving on the left side of the road than we did on the right; doing so in Ireland, the UK, Australia, New Zealand and Africa. Many North Americans call it driving on the “wrong” side of the road but we’ve never embraced this terminology. That just makes it harder to get used to.  Here are a few tips we learned in the UK for driving on the left:

1)  Go left, young man

Think left. And then think left again. Some car companies put a sticker on the dashboard that says, “Left alive. Dead right.” That’s it in a nutshell. When you’re not sure where to go, just go left.

2)  Avoid a sticky situation

Most rental vehicles in the UK and Europe are manual transmission. For the first time you drive on the left, consider paying extra for an automatic transmission. If you don’t drive a manual transmission at home, this is not the time to learn. However, if you are used to a stick at home, you will find, as we did, that the adjustment to shifting with the left hand is relatively easy.

3)  Remote possibilities

Pick up your rental car in a more remote location. For our road trip in Scotland we started out in Edinburgh. However, instead of picking up our car in that crowded city, we took the train to a suburban location and picked up our car there. With fewer cars on the road it was an easier adjustment to make.

how to drive on the left

With the freedom of a car hire, me met some new friends in the English countryside.

4)  Curb your enthusiasm

Practice driving around the parking lot where you pick up the car and get used to the bulk of the car being on your left rather than the right. Also try parallel parking it against a curb a few times.

5)  Making adjustments

The adjustment to driving on the left is a bit easier to make since the driver sits on the right, opposite to where they are used to. Right away the driver is aware something is different, which makes it easier to adapt. Also, in the UK many country roads where you will go exploring are single-lane, so driving is a breeze.

6)  Do you get my drift?

If you are traveling with a companion, enlist their help to make sure you are not drifting over the center line of the road. That can happen a bit at first. Driving on the left is harder for the front seat passenger as they continually press the phantom brake pedal that they don’t have. At least Larissa does.

7)  Going around in circles

The UK and Ireland are chock full of traffic circles, something Americans are not used to. Visualize ahead of time what you will do in a circle. What’s that? Correct, go left.

Follow these tips and driving on the left will be a breeze. You will also get to see more of the countryside, wandering around at your own pace. And don’t forget, in North America we call it car rental, but it’s called a car hire in the UK.

Just remember when you return home to get back on the right. We drove on the left so much on our journey that it became second-nature. When we got into a taxi after our arrival in New York, I wondered why the driver was sitting on the “wrong” side of the car.

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Seven tips for driving on the left

Larissa and Michael are your typical middle-aged couple from Philadelphia who’ve been traveling the world full-time since 2011, seeking off-beat, historic and tasty sights. To receive monthly updates and valuable travel tips subscribe here.

Picher, Oklahoma is a harsh example of the effects mining can have on an area. Once a major producer of lead and zinc, the town is now a ghost town as the lead came back to haunt them.  The air, soil and water around Picher became contaminated with leftovers from the mining operations known as chat and tailings.

A 1996 study revealed that a third of the children suffered from lead poisoning. By 2009, Picher Oklahoma was a Superfund site and was virtually abandoned.

Picher Oklahoma ghost town drive in (575x402)

The D & D Drive-In still advertises burgers in its window. It later became G & J’s Gorillas cage and was the last place open in Picher.

Picher Oklahoma abandoned town Main Street (575x436)

Main Street thrived during the 1940s, when mine operations in the area produced most of the lead for bullets issued to American soldiers in World War II.

Picher Oklahoma high school track

Picher-Cardin high school’s track and gym remain, along with the Coca Cola sponsored scoreboard.

Picher Oklahoma abandoned town

The high school mascot was the Gorillas, as seen in this statue which also proclaims that Picher was the 1984 state football champ; which is a big deal in Oklahoma. It’s sad that this symbol of school spirit was left behind.

Picher Oklahoma abandoned water tower and car wash (575x470)

The Picher Gorillas water tower rises over an abandoned “Car Bath.”

Picher homes with lead pile (575x431)

The source of Picher’s troubles, piles of toxic mine waste, looms over abandoned homes. The lead waste blew over the town, causing birth defects and learning disabilities in children. A chalky grain covers everything in the town.

Picher church head on (573x575)

This abandoned church looks like something from a Gothic horror movie set.

Picher church and water tower (575x456)

The modern churches had to be abandoned too.

Picher Oklahoma burned out building

The writing on a burned out building on Main Street proclaims that Picher is a drug-free community.

Picher Oklahoma abandoned bus

Even the church bus was left behind.

We also visited the abandoned town of Centralia, Pennsylvania. In the 1960s an abandoned coal mine caught fire, it still burns today, causing the evacuation of the town. For more go to: Centralia, Pennsylvania: The Unforgettable Fire.

Here’s our story about the 10 spookiest ghost towns in America.

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