Jim –When you and your parents drove from California to Tennessee, how long did it take?

Me – Four days, but we made a lot of stops.  Why?

And that’s how it began.

But you need some background info…

Local YMCA’s don’t necessarily own everything they own.  For instance, the Twenty Nine Palms YMCA did NOT own the 15-passenger van they had in their possession.  They discovered this when they decided they didn’t use it enough to justify the expense of maintaining it and wanted to sell it.  The same thing happened with the San Diego YMCA.  The national office technically owned both vans and knew the Fort Bragg branch needed them.  So a grand plan was hatched to transport both vehicles from Southern California to North Carolina.

But after dozens of phone calls they discovered it would cost somewhere near $23,000 to have them carried that far.  That’s when we got the call from Lisa.  She was looking for two people to fly to San Diego and drive them cross country…and coincidentally…we are two people!

There was a LOT of prep work…at their end.  Luckily all I had to do was plan the route and figure out where we wanted to stop each night.  Oh…and pack!

I rarely fly.  I HATE flying.  I always drive because A) cars so rarely fall out of the sky and 2) there’s no luggage restrictions.  I’m not a light packer.  Last May I shot a wedding in Tennessee.  I was gone five days and took five suitcases, two duffle bags and an overnight case.  I took NINE pair of shoes and I wore them all during those 5 days!  So packing 9 days of necessities into one suitcase was torture!




Gladiators & Lightening

We flew out of Fayetteville on a Friday.  I’m not sure if it’s a post 9/11 issue or I’d just been really lucky with all of my flights prior to this…but planes don’t take off on time anymore.  Like…ever.  We didn’t even board on time…and we had priority seating!

When you don’t fly a lot, your body isn’t use to it.  I hadn’t flown since 1999.  And that was just 4 quick one hour flights.  I actually like the take off…but once the plane levels out it just all feels wrong.  It’s like when you’ve had hiccups for 20 minutes and they abruptly stop…your body craves that next hiccup.  Well…once the plane climbs up to the cruising altitude…my body craves the plummet.  Maybe it’s from years of riding roller coasters.  Maybe I’m just weird.  But it literally feels wrong when the plane levels out, but doesn’t immediately swoop back down.  I’m going to write a suggestion to the airlines that they leave a little Valium and a bottle of water on each seat.


We had a 3 hour layover in Charlotte so we had lunch at 1897 Market…they’re on the Top Ten List of Airport eateries and the food was delicious!  Then we had a 3 hour flight to DFW…with first class seats!  We had leg room, headphones, and warm towels to clean our hands before they served…lunch!  Yah we totally ate twice.

It ended far too soon and we landed in DFW…where everything came to a crashing halt.

I won’t bore you with details…just picture a thunder-storm, a closed airport, one cancelled flight, 5 flight delays, some missing luggage, one episode of Scandal, three catholic priests, and a seriously messed up car rental and you pretty much know what the next 11 hours were like.

By the time we checked into the resort and crawled into bed we’d been up for more than 21 hours and traveling for 18 hours.  And the front desk woke us up at 3am to let us know our luggage had arrived and they were bringing it up!


The road to Nirvana is paved with…windmills?

Bellagio-Sorrento Bougainvillea Final

We woke up Saturday morning to a gorgeous view of the bay and dozens of little ducks meandering around and Bougainvillea climbing all over the balconies of the resort.  But we also woke up starving because we hadn’t eaten since the second lunch in Charlotte the day before…we were on a mission to find food!


This is how we learned people in California don’t eat anything but tofu and sushi.  They also run or bike everywhere.  We spent 40 minutes kinda looking for food and kinda looking for La Jolla.  We found La Jolla ( where Jim got his first glimpse of the pacific Ocean ) before we found food, but by that point we were so hungry we were like feral cats clawing at anything that looked edible.  One of us mentioned hamburgers…maybe him…maybe me…maybe I hallucinated it.  Either way it was decided we would look for a Burger King because A) they have food and 2) there’s one on every single street corner in America.  Except of course…in California!

45 minutes later our GPS directed us to a mall of some kind.  It claimed there was a Burger King in the food court but we never saw one.  We ended up eating subs from Charlie’s.

The original plan was to spend 3 days in California before heading east.  But the night before we left the coordinator found out California has some weird rule and we needed a class C license to drive a passenger van.  After another flurry of phone calls it was agreed that we’d meet the staff from the Twenty Nine Palms office at the border of California and Arizona for the official hand off.  But that we’d do it Saturday at 1!  So we had to cram some real fast sight-seeing into the drive to Twenty Nine Palms.

I’ve been to Palm Springs but neither of us had been to Twenty Nine Palms.  It sounds exotic and glamorous…the kind of place movie stars frequent…the kind of place with cabana boys and waving palms trees.

Not so much.


Picture the post-apocalyptic wasteland from any of the Mad Max movies and you’re on track.  The highway into Twenty Nine Palms is laden with windmills.  I remembered them from my trip to Palm Springs in 87.  The town itself is barren with very old one-story buildings…most of them vacant and abandoned.  There were a few gas stations, a fast food place, some Native American references.  I’d never seen anything so desolate and dreary before…


Twenty Nine Palms is home to a marine base…it’s nestled down in a valley.  You have to circle most of the base then drive across a good portion of the Mohave Desert to get to the gate.  But we managed to get there without running into a rattle snake, a road runner or Wylie Coyote.


We found their YMCA office…and realized there had been some major miscommunication.  We were NOT driving cute little lady like vans across the whole wide country…we were driving buses!  Big white buses.  The kind with wide-set back ends, double doors that open when you pull that massive lever, and really bad sound systems.

There were a few jokes about ducking out, buying plane tickets home and forgetting the whole thing.  And it’s truly a testament to how much I hate flying that I chose to stay and drive that big ol’ bus instead of flying home.  But we did stay…and now I’m glad we did.

We needed provisions for the ride so while Dawn…our new friend and coordinator made some phone calls and mapped a new route…Jim and I went to the commissary.  I know not all of you are military people so you have no idea how big a commissary is supposed to be so I’ll just tell you…BIG.  They’re usually the size of a Target.  Not a super center Target…just a basic Target.  So it was a little bit of a shock when we walked in and this commissary was just about the same size as my house.  But it was conveniently located across the street from the YMCA…why?  Because everything is across the street from the YMCA.  Twenty Nine Palms is one of the largest military bases in the world and covers more than 931 miles of land.  But the actual cantonment is super small.  Super small!!!!

We go back to Dawn and the buses and discover there was a bit more miscommunication.  We thought we were simply going to hand Dawn the keys to the rental and she’d hand us the van keys…but the actual border is more than 150 miles away.  So Jim, Dawn and I loaded everything onto one bus while Butch (a very nice retired marine) drove the second bus.  And a third guy who I never met drove an SUV behind us so he could drive them back to Twenty Nine Palms after we did the hand off in Needles.


Mesa – Mesa is the American English term for tableland, an elevated area of land with a flat top and sides that are usually steep cliffs

Once you leave the base and head into the desert on historic Route 66 the scenery changes a little.  It’s still desert, but it’s gorgeous!  Flat desert sands surround the road on each side and end at the base of giant red rock mountains that rise up forming a border.  Joshua trees are scattered around with a few tumbleweeds.


Then there’s the volcano.  Yah…an actual volcano rises up out of the desert on the North side of the road.


Between the base and the border there’s ONE place to stop…Roy’s Café.  Roy’s is famous.  It’s been used in movies, music videos and written about in books.  There’s also a lot of trains and railroads crossing the desert.

While we drove I quizzed Dawn on the area. They have dust storms that last 15 minutes to 3 days!  If you have doggy doors, road runners will sneak in and steal dog food or rifle through your trash.  They have a LOT of snakes and scorpions there…large scorpions.  And they don’t have a Walmart!  In fact there are very few places to shop once you leave the base.  But the extreme climate and the isolation kind of forces everyone to be closer.  They’ve formed a much stronger community bond and work together to do everything from raising kids to helping spouses of disabled vets.  And while it is barren and dry…it’s also really beautiful.  She said at night it’s so dark you can see every star for miles around and they have beautiful sunsets.  I don’t know if I’d ever feel at home living there, but I’d definitely go back and enjoy taking photos for a few weeks.

We hit Needles around dusk and with very little pomp and circumstance Jim and I took possession of two outdated and over sized buses…which we named Saucy Flossy and the Beast.  (The local YMCA has decided to keep the names)


(The next installment will be posted soon)