Thursday and Friday, June 13th and 14th, were the days we set aside to sprint across Arkansas, Oklahoma, the Texas Panhandle, and almost all of New Mexico. Starting point: Memphis, Tennessee. Ending point: Gallup, New Mexico, near the Arizona border.
Google Maps says that’s 1,144 miles. That sounds about right to me. You can see how much of the country we covered in those two days by clicking on the pic to the right.
What was most remarkable to me was the different character of the four states we crossed, at least from our perspective on Interstate 40.
Arkansas: There was very little noteworthy about Arkansas, the birthplace of Wal-Mart. Much of the view from the Interstate was unremarkable, and similar to long stretches of Tennessee: tree-lined interstate with nothing visible of consequence on either side.
Arkansas was also under construction. We experienced long stretches of one-lane traffic, slow speeds, and some downright stops. Patches of Arkansas I-40 were certainly in need of it and were very rough.
Oklahoma: Let’s just say that I-40 doesn’t give you a good impression of Oklahoma. The rest stops were few, far between, and little more than tiny brick bathrooms with nothing else to offer. The two gas stations we did stop at in the state were frequented by Oklahoma’s less impressive citizens.
I’ll leave it at that, except to say that Oklahoma wasn’t a flat, farming wasteland like I expected. It had contours, trees, green grass, and curves in the highway. Some of the flatter parts of the landscape hosted large wind farms, with the big, three-bladed windmills we don’t see in Virginia.
Texas (the Panhandle): As unimpressive as Oklahoma was, Texas was the exact opposite. The Lone Star State was everything it is billed to be: big, not just in landscape, but in every way. The rest stop that greeted us was huge, with a scenic lookout behind it that gave us a panoramic view of the countryside, and it wasn’t even the official Welcome Center. It was just a regular rest stop that put the small, dirty pits in Oklahoma to shame.
Texas had wind farms too, but they were bigger than the ones in Oklahoma, of course, with lines of towers that hoisted long power lines that carried electricity generated by the wind farms far off into the distance, towards Austin and perhaps parts beyond.
Most of the Texas panhandle was what I expected Oklahoma to be: vast and flat, with vistas that extended dozens of miles off to the horizon, as far as the eye can see (as the old saying goes). It was an impressive site, the likes of which I had never seen.
15 miles from the New Mexico border, it was as if someone threw a switch, and the landscape changed to gently rolling desert landscape filled with scrub brush.
New Mexico: Wow. New Mexico wins the prize. I don’t have the vocabulary to describe New Mexico, and I mean that sincerely; I don’t know what all the formations and colors are called. New Mexico is one of those places that quickly bangs up against the limits of human language, and of course, pictures don’t do it justice, either.
Ever see the Pixar movie Cars? The landscape in New Mexico is just like the landscape in that movie, except the rock formations don’t look like the hoods of cars. But they are just as numerous, and they stick out just like that.
You see long stretches of purplish-red rock formations, and we watched a train approach from the horizon, and go right under the Interstate as we crossed over the tracks. We did 300+ miles in New Mexico on Friday, after crossing the Texas Panhandle, and every single mile was amazing.
Observations from Days 4 and 5
Day 4 (Arkansas and Oklahoma) and Day 5 (Texas and New Mexico) were two long driving days, but with completely different character. We didn’t like Arkansas and Oklahoma, and at times, the road was in such poor condition that it beat the RV near to death. I can’t believe the abuse that the tires on the RV took from I-40 in those two states.
The road was so bad on the west side of Oklahoma City that it prompted us to pull over, unscrew the flatscreen TV from its mounting bracket, and lay it on the bed. At the time, the kids were watching it, but they started reporting “the colors going all crazy” in the center of the screen, so we took it down for fear that it would break from the brutal shaking it was taking. By contrast, in tens of thousands of miles of highway driving of our 1997 conversion van, we have never once feared for the life of the TV installed in it.
In my life, I have visited lightly populated areas of Venezuela and Panama, areas where the infrastructure is crumbling, and there are gaps in the pavement that pound the tires and suspension of cars. There are stretches of I-40 in Arkansas and especially Oklahoma that rival the lousy roads I traveled in Venezuela and Panama years ago.
In all, I expected the nearly 1,200 miles across those four states to be incredibly boring, but it was anything but. I can’t see ever getting bored of that huge, wide open landscape, but I know a long-haul truck driver, and he says, “Oh yeah, you get bored of it.”
I don’t know … that’s hard to imagine. You really get a feel for the vastness of this country by driving the big, flat states like Texas. It’s awe-inspiring. I repeat: I don’t have the vocabulary for it, and words and pictures (shot from a moving car) don’t do it justice. If you’ve never driven it, drive it some time.
Another thing I didn’t expect was the constant, strong, crosswinds/headwinds. The wind blows all the time, non-stop, across Oklahoma, Texas, and New Mexico (and Arizona too, we discovered later) — hence, the wind farms. My gas mileage dropped from 8 MPG to 7 MPG, and though some of that was due to running the generator, a lot of it was due to the constant wind hitting the RV a glancing blow on the front right corner. There were times where, if the terrain took an uphill slant at all, I couldn’t maintain 60 miles an hour, due mostly to the strong headwinds.
We ended up in Gallup, New Mexico, at a really nice RV park, with just 200 miles to go to Williams, AZ, our home base for visiting the Grand Canyon. We had driven about 1,800 miles at this point, and we were close.
By the way, our trip to Graceland created a new Elvis fan. My 11-year-old daughter spent several hours poring through a Graceland book I bought. The quote? “I never knew Elvis was so cute when he was young.”