Tuesday, September 20, 2011

West U.S. Road Trip - Sep 2011

My route through 7 states

In Jun 2011, I purchased a new Honda after my 1992 Honda Civic decided to die on me. What better way to break in a new car than a kick-ass road trip! So in September, I journeyed on a solo road trip through the western United States. Over 17 days, I drove my new Honda Fit 7000 kms through 7 states.

Originally, I had planned to just visit Portland for a few days. Then I decided I wanted to see the Oregon coast. And then I thought why not make this a long road trip and drive all the way to see the Grand Canyon! I could also check out Las Vegas while I was in that area. So I built a road trip around that.

For those who don’t know, I drive with simple hand controls and spinner knob. There is a lever on the left side just below the turn signal. I pull back for gas and push forward to brake. Since I have to steer with one hand, there is a knob at the 2 o’clock position on the steering wheel that enables me to make turns more easily. Anyone else can drive my car since the petals are unaffected. To get in the car with my wheelchair, I pop the quick-release wheels off and place them behind the front passenger seat, and then I lift the frame over my body and rest it on the back seat. I do all of that in reverse when I get out and that’s all there is to it.

Sleeping in the car is fun!
My accommodations were a mix of couchsurfing, motels, and sleeping in my car. Since my Honda has seats that fold all the way down flat, I thought I could turn it into a makeshift camper. I bought a self-inflating air mattress and sleeping bag and slept in the back. Of course, I had to rearrange all my other gear and wheelchair. My wheels fit nicely on the dashboard, the frame propped up on the passenger seat. Food and various other items went on the driver’s seat and my suitcase of clothes was propped up vertically right beside me. Oh yeah, and I had to sleep in an ‘S’ position, even with my short legs. It may have been cozy, but it was comfortable enough to sleep for the night. When traveling spontaneously and driving on the road all day, it’s just so convenient to be able to pull over somewhere and crash for the night, rather than making arrangements with a couchsurfing host or trying to find a motel. 

Beginning odometer reading


Loehn, his girlfriend and I at an
Irish pub
My first stop on this road trip was Portland OR. This was my first time to Portland and I really enjoyed my time here. I couchsurfed with a guy named Loehn, who also uses a wheelchair. That was actually one of the main reasons why I wanted to surf with him. Since he was uses a wheelchair too, I knew for sure that his place would be completely accessible for me.

A'voodoo doll' donut from
Voodoo Donuts
Loehn offered superb hospitality. Due to Seattle traffic, I didn’t arrive until 8 or 9pm. We made dinner together and chatted. The next day, he and his girlfriend, took me to this Irish restaurant downtown and grabbed some donuts from the famous Voodoo Donuts.

Portland is a very wheelchair accessible city. There are some hills, but it was manageable. All buses and the light rail are fully accessible. Public transportation is even free in the downtown zone.

On my last day, Loehn took me to the Saturday Market (picture a huge farmers’ market downtown) and checked out offerings from local artists and various foods from local producers. We had lunch where Portland is famous for – food carts!

Exploring Canon Beach with my
Later that day, I left Portland and headed towards the coast and my first stop was Cannon Beach. This small beach community is absolutely gorgeous and very picturesque. Unfortunately, I just happened to be there on Labour Day, so it was also very crowded. It was a beautiful, sunny day though and I loved seeing the miles of sandy beach and those rock formations that come out of the water.

First night sleeping in my car beside
a barn
After the sun set, I headed south on highway 101 and starting looking for place I could sleep for the night. I wanted to find a quiet, secluded place that didn’t have highway traffic zipping by, but I had trouble finding such a place. And then it got dark. I finally found an open clearing near a barn and parked my car and got ready to spend my first night ‘camping’ in the car. As I was falling asleep I heard a loud ‘moooo’, followed by another and another. I looked up and realized I had setup camp right beside a fence where there were cows. It looks like I chose to sleep on someone’s farm! Oh well. No harm done.

My travel buddy 'Chris' loves cheese
The next day I drove into Tillamook and visited their famous cheese factory. They make other dairy products here too, but I think cheese is the main food. It’s kind of neat to see how cheese is made, plus you get to sample a bunch of cheeses for free. I picked up some cheese curds on my way out.

I continued south along 101 and experienced real Oregon coast weather – fog and mist. It was like that pretty much almost all the way to California. Along the highway, there are many scenic lookout points, but it can be hit or miss because with the foggy weather you can barely see in front of you. Along the way, I picked up this brochure for Sea Lion Caves where they advertised an elevator that would actually take you down into the caves. However, when I got there, I learned that you have to go down a flight stairs to get to that elevator. So it wasn’t accessible after all. I was very disappointed!

In the southern part of the Oregon coast, you get into sand dunes. Now of course, there’s no way I could get my wheelchair into the sand dunes, but it was still neat to see.

For my 2nd night sleeping in the car, I drove into Coos Bay and decided to sleep in a Wal-mart parking lot that I found by searching for it on my GPS. I heard they allowed overnight parking in their stores that were open 24 hrs. I thought this would be a good idea, since there is a washroom and also I could buy groceries and supplies. Well apparently, sleeping in a Wal-mart parking lot is not a well-kept secret because there were plenty of other RVs and cars with fogged up windows. It was almost like a campground in itself! I managed to find a quiet corner of the parking lot, but it was so foggy that night that I’m sure no one could even see my car anyway.

South Oregon Coast
The next day, the sun broke out for a little and I got to enjoy the Oregon Coast for a bit before I headed into California. I want to mention that Oregon was my favourite state to visit. There’s no state sales tax. So the price you see is the price you pay. There are no self-serve gas stations, meaning they have to pump gas for you. I also discovered my new favourite store – Fred Meyer which is kind of like Superstore here in BC. I always bought my groceries and gas here when I could and it was very cheap.   


The only 'Welcome to' sign I was able
to photograph
My first stop in California was at a visitor center in Crescent City near Redwood National Park. I told them how long I was there for and what kind of vehicle I had and they were very helpful in suggesting how to see the famous redwood trees. Unfortunately, hiking was not an option for me, but luckily there were two self-guided driving tours that were absolutely amazing.

stopping along Avenue of the Giants
The first tour was on a single lane, hard packed dirt road where I got to see these remarkable ‘giants’. The speed limit is slow, something like 5 or 10 miles/hr, but that’s fine because it gives you time to enjoy the scenery. The brochures don’t lie. These trees are gigantic and some have been around for more than a thousand years. You can feel like a tiny ant when looking up at these trees. The second tour was on a paved highway called the Avenue of Giants. It was actually a scenic detour to Hwy 101. You could drive faster here, but that means you’re not as close to the trees so this tour wasn’t as up close and personal as the first tour. However, it still made for a scenic drive.   

For my 3rd night sleeping in the car, I found a scenic outlook with a gorgeous view of the Pacific Ocean and tall cliffs. I thought it would be the perfect place to wake up in the morning. However, as I was getting ready to sleep, this car pulls up and parks right beside mine. There were a bunch of kids inside and they were blasting loud music. For the first time on my trip, I felt kind of scared because it was just my car and theirs out in a remote place. I didn’t know if they were going to try and break into my car or start shining a flash light inside or what. Anyway, they all got out and after a short while went for a walk. At which time I decided to start the car and take off. There was no way I was going to sleep being that nervous. After some driving, I found the head of a hiking trail complete with restrooms. It was directly off the highway, not too noisy, and I was the only one there. So I crashed there for the night. 

Driving through a Redwood
The next day I wanted to check out one of those road side attractions I had read about where you can actually drive through a tree. You have to pay 6 bucks! There’s no gate attendant so they count on you being honest and putting your money into a box. And if you’re wondering, I was honest and paid the full $6. I have to say it was a unique and fun experience that lasted about 30 seconds, but hey, it’s something I will probably never do again.

I continued south along hwy 101 through northern California where I saw less ocean and more hilly, grassy terrain. I was headed to see my next host in San Jose where I would spend a few days checking out the Bay Area. After 3 nights of sleeping in my car, I needed to sleep in a real bed and have a real shower, so I found through my GPS a Motel 6 in Santa Rosa, just a few hours north of San Francisco. It was very hot that day – the first real heat I had felt on my trip. My room was ADA accessible with wide doors, grab bars, and roll in shower. The motel itself was a bit on the shady side. When I went to the ice machine there were some guys smoking and drinking outside their rooms. They even offered me to come in for a drink. I respectfully declined.

The next day I headed towards San Francisco and drove over the iconic Golden Gate Bridge. I had walked back and forth over the bridge a couple of years ago, but driving over it was another great experience altogether. I wished I could have recorded driving across, but that would have been awkward and highly dangerous since I need both hands to drive. By the way, Golden Gate Bridge is tolled and will cost $6 going southbound.  

hot girl in nurse uniform serving up
donuts? now that's what I'm
talking about!
I met my next host Karl in downtown San Jose where he showed me around the University of San Jose where he went to school. He took me to this funky donut shop called Psycho Donuts where hot girls in nurse uniforms serve up donuts! By the way, in downtown San Jose, if you have a handicap parking permit, you can park at any metered spot for free. I found the same to apply in many other cities too. Karl was born with the brittle bone disease and thus uses a power chair. Despite that, he gets around very well and even couchsurfs! I thought me being in a manual chair was difficult to couchsurf, but he does it in a power chair which I found totally inspiring. Karl is Vietnamese and lives with his family in a house in San Jose. Of course, the house was completely accessible.

Facebook and Apple

While I was in the Bay Area, my goal was to visit the major internet and tech companies. I started off at Facebook in Palo Alto. For a multi-billion dollar company, Facebook headquarters looks like an old public library. I got as far as the front lobby where I was stopped by security. There are no areas open to the public. There is however, a pathetic sign in the lobby, where another couple was getting their pictures with. That’s all Facebook had to offer. Next was Apple in Cupertino. Apple has a cool campus and there was supposed to be a flagship Apple store, but it turned out to be useless. There were some Macbooks and lots of clothing, but it was much smaller than I had imagined. And there were no ‘geniuses’ to help you, just dorky-looking cashiers who stood behind the counter. I thought the Apple stores they have in the mall back home were way better than the supposed flagship store. I also tried to get into the main building, but again I was stopped by security.      

Google Headquarters with Alex
and his dog
My final tech stop was Google in Mountain View and that’s where I hit the jackpot. Actually, one of the couch requests I made was to a guy named Alex who worked at Google. He wasn’t able to host me, but offered to take me on a tour. Now I thought he was going to tell me he was an engineer or programmer or something, but in fact, he teaches a free Kung Fu class twice a week to Google employees. But he still gets access to all Google benefits. The Google campus is like Disneyland, except everything is free. There are sculptures of cupcake, frozen yogurt, ├ęclair, gingerbread, and honeycomb – all of which are versions of the Android operating system. There are free bicycles you can use to get from building to building on campus. If you drive and have an electric car, you can plug it in and charge it for free. There’s a shuttle service that operates all over the Bay Area. For example, if you live in San Francisco, a bus will pick you up and drive you to and from work everyday! There’s also a late night car service so if you’re there late at night, a free taxi will drive you home. There’s a beach volleyball court, tennis courts, numerous classes and many other free organized activities. There’s even a hair salon if you want to get your haircut. What blew my mind was the free internet. Of course, Google has free wi-fi all over campus, but they also provide free wi-fi to the entire city of Mountain View! And the best part of all was the free food. Alex took me for lunch where I could eat pretty much any food I wanted: burgers, pasta, salads, sushi, pizza, Thai, Mexican, Indian, various desserts, and every kind of beverage known to man. I was completely overwhelmed and just wanted to eat everything – and I probably did. Apparently, you can eat breakfast, lunch, and dinner. There’s no reason for you to buy food at home, or even own a kitchen for that matter. Visiting Google headquarters was definitely one of the highlights of my road trip.  

End of the access path at Santa Cruz
The next day, Karl and his friend took me to Santa Cruz, which is a beach community about an hour south from San Jose. It was really cold there that day because it’s on the ocean. There’s a midway, arcade, and pier. I found this ridiculous ‘access’ path on the beach that only goes out about half way to the water. I was not impressed. We had dinner at a restaurant on the pier where we saw wild seals. I remember telling Karl that I was headed for the Grand Canyon and Las Vegas and I was going to sleep in my car in the middle of the desert. They seriously contemplated coming with me, but unfortunately they had plans over the weekend and a test to study for. I thought I was nuts for wanting to sleep by myself in my car in the middle of the desert, but it turns out Karl and his friend was just as nuts as me!

Why did I drive to the middle of the
desert again?
I left early the next morning because I had a long 8 hr drive to Mojave and I wanted to get there before dark. But I didn’t leave before having homemade pho noodle soup his mom made for breakfast. After my longest day of driving, I made it to a very small town called Kelso in the middle of Mojave National Preserve. I was surprised my GPS even recognized the place. It was scorching hot that day, even at 4pm in September. I would have died without air conditioning in my car. There was a small visitor’s center which exhibits the history of the desert. Everything was accessible including an elevator and individual restroom outside. I watched a 15 min video that was very interesting. There was even a diner in the center. It was hard to comprehend this tiny civilization that existed in the middle of nowhere. But since it’s technically a preserve, I guess they’re funded by National Parks and there are trailer parks, campgrounds, and hiking trails around. 

Driving through the desert was very scenic and I saw terrain I had never seen before. I particularly liked seeing the Joshua tree forest. As it got dark, I found a clearing behind these large, cylindrical storage containers where I parked my car for the night. The desert is an eerie place at night. I did see other cars, but they were few and far between. I was always able to come to a complete stop in the middle of the road and take pictures. When nightfall came, there was crazy lightning in the distance and that made me think a storm was coming. But the lightening just continued and I didn’t hear any thunder. Then the wind started howling and ironically, it began to rain, in the desert! I knew there were campgrounds so there probably wasn’t a major threat from animals, but sleeping by myself in the middle of the desert with the howling wind made for a very spooky night.

My car commercial shot
The next morning while I was brushing my teeth a truck pulled into my clearing and this big black guy gets out followed by a woman. I thought I was completely alone out here so you can only guess how surprised I was. I panicked and immediately started rearranging my gear so I could drive the hell out of there. But instead they walked in a different direction and began looking for something. My only guess was that they were looking for firewood, which is of course rare in the desert. And then they drove away. Close call.   


Exploring Grand Canyon
After my adventures in the desert, I headed towards the Grand Canyon – my main reason for going on this road trip. It’s a long drive to Grand Canyon. Even after you exit Hwy 41, it still takes a little over an hour just to get to Grand Canyon – the part where all of the hotels are. As you enter the park gates, you have pay $25 per car for a 7 day pass. Be sure to ask for a regular map and access map which identifies all of the wheelchair accessible trails as well as other access facilities. They will also give you a special parking pass that will allow you to drive and park in areas that are restricted to busses. Grand Canyon is a very wheelchair friendly park. Once you’ve finally made it to the south rim and parked, you can either get around by walking, biking, or taking the free shuttles that operate all over the park. Since I was driving most of the day, I only got to the south rum just before dusk, but I was able to enjoy a beautiful sunset right over the Grand Canyon. It was very picturesque. When you see Grand Canyon for the first time, it looks like a painting. It looks surreal. It’s a marvelous sight that I think every person should see at least once in their lives.

For my first night in the Grand Canyon, I parked at this viewpoint because I wanted to wakeup to see the Grand Canyon. Sometime after midnight, while I was asleep, I get a knock on my window and I see a big flashlight shining into my car. I thought to myself ‘this isn’t good’. Without thinking about it, I opened the car door and it was a park ranger who told me I can’t sleep in national parks. She asked for my driver’s license and ran it to make sure I hadn’t already been given a warning. So I guess now, I’m in some kind of national database of people caught sleeping in national parks. She told me I could either go look for a real campsite, or just drive to the nearest town and park my car and sleep. She was actually very polite about whole thing. I think she felt bad about waking me up and I’m sure she was nervous being all alone and having to knock on this dark car window. She even gave me her full name and said to mention it if anyone else bothered me. Ironically, I ended up parking my car in a hotel parking lot and slept there. I chose that spot because my car would blend in with the others and I could go inside the hotel and use the restroom at any time, On my entire road trip, this was the only run-in I had with any authority.
A double rainbow at the
Grand Canyon

I spent the next day walking along the nicely paved paths of the south rim. For the most part, I found the paved trails easy to maneuver, but there are some sections that are steep and the path gets so narrow that my chair can’t even fit through. In some areas, the pavement turns to dirt so I had to turn around. But you can see plenty from the paved routes. There are fully accessible restrooms everywhere, both flush and pit toilets.

Wheelchair parking spot for trucks
After sunset, I said goodbye to Grand Canyon and headed for Meteor Crater. It wasn’t on my original itinerary, but being as nerdy as I am, I wanted to check it out since it was only a couple of hours away. For that night I slept in my car in a rest stop. There was a large area for trucks, but there was only one truck so I parked my car in the back and slept. In the morning I found a handicap parking spot for trucks! I have never met a truck drive in a wheelchair, but I suppose Arizona wants equal access for all.

Meteor Crater
Meteor Crater turned out to be the coolest roadside attraction I’ve ever seen. It’s the world’s first proven and best preserved impact crater. Most of the site is accessible. There’s an elevator inside. Outside, there are two viewing decks. The main deck is accessible and you can see everything from there, but there’s no elevator to the upper deck. People try to trivialize the crater and say that it’s just a hole in the ground, but it’s so much more than that. I found it to be very educational and I learned a lot about meteors. I even bought a piece of the meteor in the gift shop.   


Circus Circus Hotel
I booked 2 nights at Circus Circus in Las Vegas through expedia.ca. This hotel is located on the north end of the strip and it’s nowhere near as nice as the other hotels, but my room was clean and it only cost $30 CAN/night. Keep in mind that most Vegas hotels charge a ‘resort fee’ which can vary from 5 to $25/night in addition to the regular room rate. It covers things like internet, phone, gym, pool, etc. The fee was $9/night at Circus Circus. You have to pay it when you check. I think it’s just a cash grab that really should be built into the room rate.

I didn’t enjoy Vegas as much as I thought I would. It can be a very overwhelming place with all of the bright lights and sounds. The hotels are gigantic. When I first got there, I got a hotel map and made the mistake of thinking I could go for a leisurely stroll down the street. It took more than an hour just to walk from one end to the other! There are hordes and hordes of people. Everywhere you go there are solicitors who get right in your face trying to give you cards advertising ‘escort’ services. The streets are littered with those cards. I discovered that Vegas isn’t a great place for a solo traveler. People are there in their own groups, and they’re there to party. I guess I was too used to seeing natural beauty, and when I finally got to Vegas, it was all too artificial for me.

Vegas strip at night
Surprisingly, I found it difficult getting around in a wheelchair. There’s no real sidewalk along Las Vegas Blvd. There is in some areas, but a lot of the time you have to kind of go into the hotel property. At many intersections, pedestrians don’t walk across the street. They would walk up stairs or escalator, cross a pedestrian bridge and walk down. I, on the other hand, would have to find a hidden, slow elevator on both sides. There were some occasions where the elevator was broken, and when that happens, I have to cross the three other streets in the intersection just to get to the other side. Sometimes, it would take 15 min just to cross a street! It was very frustrating. You can try the monorail, but just getting to the monorail is a hike, and it doesn’t stop at every hotel. There’s also public buses, but they charge a lot (more than regular public transit because it’s the strip), and the buses were always full. Then I remembered, I’m on a road trip and I have my own car. So I actually just drove everywhere. There’s free parking at every hotel.

Don’t get me wrong though, I did enjoy some things about Vegas. I was enchanted by seeing all of the glitz and glamour. I treated myself to a show – Cirque de Soleil Zumaniti which actually had topless women. Exploring all of the gigantic hotels was amazing including the famous Bellagio fountains. I’d have to say my favourite hotel was Luxor which is the Egyptian themed hotel.
Las Vegas is a strange place, geographically speaking. You have this huge, booming metropolitan city that’s smack dab in the middle of the desert. They must use an enormous amount of water and electricity and I don’t know where it comes from. Once you drive out of the city though, it’s a completely baron desert land. It’s like driving on Mars. I actually found that to be more interesting than Vegas itself.


Hanging out with cute Morman girls
in Salt Lake City

I only spent one day in Salt Lake City. I stayed at a very run down Motel 6 in the downtown area. I remember the counter agent saying to me “The only room I have left is the handicap accessible room. Is that alright?” Of course, I said yes.

I started off at the Salt Lake City visitor’s center downtown and saw lots of brochures for something called Temple Square. By the way, there’s lots of free wheelchair parking downtown. After I entered Temple Square I went directly to the main visitor’s center and noticed immediately this was a religious area. Next thing I know, these two (very attractive) ladies approached me and asked if I would like to a tour. I thought there would be a group, but it was just the three of us. On the tour, I quickly discovered that Salt Lake City is the world headquarters of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints – aka Mormons. These guys definitely have some coin because the buildings are absolutely gorgeous. I was interested in learning about the historical significance of Mormons and the architecture. My tour leaders however, were more interested in learning about me and my religious beliefs. They asked what I thought about particular paintings and sculptures. They even asked for my contact info so they could keep in touch with me. (I gave them fake info). Overall, they were polite and did give me a good tour, but I was not interested in joining their faith.

Olympic Stadium at U. Utah
I knew Salt Lake City hosted the 2002 Winter Olympics so I wanted to see something related to that. I took the light rail all the way to the University of Utah to see Rice-Eccles Stadium where they held the opening and closing ceremonies. I tried walking there at first, but realized quickly that their city blocks are huge. It takes 10 min to walk one block! There’s also a small Olympic museum. I was the only one there at the time. Public transit is free in the downtown core and costs around a dollar elsewhere for disabled users.


Boise State capital
I wasn’t expecting much from Idaho (which smells like a farm everywhere you go), but I found cool things to do and enjoyed it more than I thought I would. I only had one day to spend here so I chose to check out the state capital Boise. I slept in a rest stop just outside the city and started my day at the visitor’s center downtown. A nice lady there made some suggestions on what to see that day. 

Prison life is tough!
My first stop was the Anne Frank Memorial Garden. They had excerpts of her diary engraved onto large stones and after reading them, I felt very humbled. After that I wandered around the state capital building then drove to the Old Idaho State Penitentiary which is an old prison turned into a tourist attraction. Of course, a prison open to the public is going to draw comparisons to Alcatraz in San Francisco. Alcatraz is more famous and renovated, but this prison was more authentic and rustic-looking. There may have been 5 people inside. I pretty much had the place to myself. It’s very eerie exploring an old prison by yourself. Everything was pretty accessible. There are ramps to get inside every building. In the cell blocks, you can even get inside some cells, but unfortunately you can’t get to the 2nd level.        

After visiting Idaho, I started making my way back home through eastern Oregon. This is where I saw sand dunes and wind mill farms which were kind of cool. When the night came I found this viewpoint on top of a hill overlooking a city. There were no clouds and it was new moon so the stars were brilliant. It reminded me a lot of that night I spent in my car in Lake Superior Park on my cross Canada road trip. Again, it was just me, my car, my gear, and all the stars. This is the stuff road trips are made of.

I thought about sleeping there that night, but then I remembered the incident I had back at the beach viewpoint in Crescent City, California. So I continued on and had a heck of a time finding a place to park for my last night sleeping in my car. The rest stops I passed were small and very busy, so I knew I wasn’t going to get much sleep there. I actually ended up sleeping in a church parking lot. It was quiet, secluded, and I was pretty sure no one would bother me there.

On my last day of driving, I stopped by an outlet mall just east of Portland. I wanted to take advantage of some tax-free shopping before going home, but there were no stores I was interested so I was quite disappointed by that.

Ending odometer reading

This Western US road trip was a great adventure for me. I visited new cities and drove across terrain I had never seen before. I wished I had more time to visit more places like southern California, Phoenix, New Mexico, Colorado, Wyoming, and North Dakota. Overall, I was very impressed with the accessibility during my travels. Every parking lot I pulled into, even the ones in the middle of the desert, had designated handicap spots. Every city had free handicap parking downtown. Every rest stop had accessible rest rooms. Every attraction I visited, except for Sea Lion Caves, was at least mostly accessible if not fully. Public transportation was great when I had to use it. And most importantly, people were always polite to me and willing to help.

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