Great American Road Trip 2009: The fly and drive combo New Mexico to Montana and back

For the past seven summers, ever since we moved back from India, we’ve embarked on a Great American Road Trip. The first was the mega version that put 10,000 miles on a new Ford Taurus station wagon in three months. Mind you, this was in 2003 with a 10 year-old and a 1 ½ year old-and without video games, computers or a DVD player.

This year’s version is a fly drive combo. Three months for tootling around between the Atlantic and Pacific is harder to come by-three weeks, doable. Without a burning desire to drive through the Midwest to get to Montana from Ohio like last year when I waxed poetic about Wisconsin’s cheese curds, we flew on Northwest Airlines (aka Delta) over those endless corn and soybean fields to Albuquerque, New Mexico.

Sure Albuquerque is no where near Montana, our main destination, but there’s a reason for the detour.

I used to live in Albuquerque. So did my husband. Between us, we have loads of friends we haven’t seen since that first road trip. Besides, Albuquerque is a budget destination with cheap flights to get there and inexpensive car rentals for heading out on the open road IF you rent away from the airport (more on that later).

When planning a Great American Road Trip, I highly recommend the fly then drive option. One year we flew to Denver and drove to Montana. Another year we flew to Seattle. With a limited time frame, the flight cuts out the parts you don’t necessarily want to see and provides the time to see those places that you do. If you’re going to be renting a car when you reach your main destination, why not head a few states away for the opportunity to explore the bounties in between?

For us the bounties might be a national park, the largest metal sculptures in the world, a mom and pop restaurant with regional food, or a town that a highway bypassed. Sometimes we know where we’ll stop before we head out, or one of us notices a point on a map and says, “Let’s stop here.”

In the next few weeks, as we’re traveling in a Toyota Sienna van through New Mexico, Utah, Colorado and Montana, where the landscape and people have a flavor so unique I could return again and again, I’ll fill you in on the places we’ve stopped and give some Great American Road Trip how-to suggestions.

We passed by Arches National Park a week ago. It’s been a busy week. Stay tuned. Ghost towns, neon and great eats on the way.

[The first photo was taken two years ago at the parade at Flint Creek Valley Days in Philipsburg, Montana where I am now. The second photo was taken last year at the pheasant family sculpture, part of the Enchanted Highway, on the way to Regent, North Dakota.]

Boeing 737 makes duck soup with ducks and lands safely

Not all planes that hit flocks of birds end up making crash landings. When a Boeing 737 flew through a flock of ducks near Fairbanks, Alaska on Thursday, it did make an emergency landing to make sure that there wasn’t any major damage to the aircraft other than the crack in the outer windshield. The only other damage was a dent in the engine cowling.

The description of the ducks bouncing off the jet reminded me a bit of the pheasants (and the black bird , and the chipmunk AND raccoon) that bounced off our car last summer when we drove along the Enchanted Highway in North Dakota on our Great American Road trip. Quite alarming and unusual. We’ve been on this road before with never a problem.

It’s not that unusual for planes to hit birds in Alaska. According to the article in the Anchorage Daily News most of the time, the birds just bounce off the airplane and nothing happens. In our case, one of the pheasants was stuck in the grill of our car, something my husband discovered when we stopped to get gas.

In the case of a plane going through flocks of ducks, I wonder if anyone on board has ever yelled, “Duck!”

*Thanks to Gadling reader, Matt for the heads up on this story.

Great American Road Trip: North Dakota. Dodging pheasants in the midst of huge sculptures

Thursday afternoon we turned off of I-94 at exit 72 for Regent, North Dakota for a detour. Three years ago, we became so enamored with this stretch of two-lane road called “The Enchanted Highway” that we decided it was worth the forty or so miles out of our way for a return visit. Our goal was Billings, Montana by 10:30 p.m.

Every five miles or so along the 32 miles to Regent, there is a large scrap metal sculpture grouping. A tin family, schools of fish, grasshoppers, Teddy Roosevelt on a horse, and a pheasant family. They are the largest scrap metal sculptures in the world. They are superb.

Back in 1989, Gary Greff, a former teacher and high school principal, came up with the idea of this series of sculptures as a way to draw people to Regent. It’s worked with us twice now. The first time I heard an interview with him on National Public Radio three years ago. As I listened to the interview, I thought heading through North Dakota to see the sculptures was a fine idea.

Greff’s plan to draw tourists is slowly working. As I was snapping photos this time, two other couples were chasing images as well. One couple boasted Florida plates. The other hailed from Minnesota.

We stopped in one of the town’s gift shops to buy post cards and coffee. The sculptures were as wonderful as I remembered and Greff has plans for another.

One of the sculpture groups that intrigues me the most is the pheasant family. They are constructed out of thin wire mesh so that each can be viewed through the others. This time as we were driving to and from Regent, I understood why the pheasant family is so fitting.

There are pheasants everywhere on the Enchanted Highway. Sad to say, despite my husband’s swerving and dodging, we took out two–one of them while I was writing the text for this post. You’ve never seen so many pheasans. They darted, meandered, waltzed, and played peek-a-boo in the thigh high grass. Each time we had a near miss, I yelled out, “Argh!!”

Such are the details that make one road trip memorable from another. Years from now we’ll recount tales of how we tried to dodge pheasants and stopped the car so our 15 year-old could run through the field to try to catch one. Why she wanted to try to catch one, I have no idea. But it was wonderful to hear her laugh with abandon.

Italian town pays women to have babies to keep afloat

Three summers ago we drove through Regent, North Dakota to see enormous scrap metal sculptures that were built along the Enchanted Highway as a means to get tourists to drive off the main interstate to Regent. The town was dying because making money there had become a dwindling proposition.

Recently, my husband said that he’d like to drive to Regent again to see those sculptures, so perhaps they are bringing people to the town.

According to this New York Times article, in Laviano, Italy population decline is also a problem. It started back in 1980 when there was an earthquake that killed 300 residents and destroyed many buildings.

Noticing that there was a lack of babies being born, the mayor decided to pay women to have babies. If a town is not replenishing its population, the economy goes into the tank. Even people who immigrate here can get paid. How long this will last is to be determined.

Lest you think this is a crazy proposition. Singapore has had a similar campaign for Chinese Singaporeans. When people aren’t procreating, they need a little umph sometimes.

Laviano does have a tourist draw. It’s in the Province of Salerno that features gorges, historical buildings that date back to the 14th century and a diversity of flora and fauna. Since tourists can create jobs, like Regent, North Dakota is counting on, perhaps Laviano might find some options in that domain if the baby thing doesn’t hold.

I’ve never been to Laviano, but here is my plug for what I’ve gathered make this a worthy stop.

Here is a link to a holiday rental. It’s a start.

Out-living a small town in Appalachia

This Sunday I went to my great-uncle’s funeral in Hindman, Kentucky. He was the youngest of 11 children and the last one living. Good-bye to that generation. It’s weird to have one layer of family gone. But, even more unsettling is a comment made by one of the people who gave a eulogy. He said that he moved to Hindman in 1956 and since then there are only two businesses still remaining. One is the Bank of Hindman. The other is the funeral home. As he said, my uncle, at age 82, had outlived his town.

I am sure that this is not an uncommon story. Drive through the rural parts of the U.S. and you’ll be met up with towns that do not resemble in the least what they once were. I saw several while driving through North Dakota on my way to Regent, a town that is also struggling.

Still, there’s Hindman and my uncle’s tale. He was the post master there for years and he owned the movie theater that doesn’t exist any more. He also ran the drive-in that hasn’t been around for a few decades. I’m not even sure where it was. It’s startling how fast change can occur to the point that much of a place is no longer recognizable. The vibrancy of life that existed in Hindman that my uncle captured with a movie camera back when my mother was a child is no where to be seen. Places like Hindman, as seen through the years of my uncle’s life, remind me of the line “Nothing gold can stay.”

In an interesting twist of irony, my uncle is not buried in the family cemetery that could very well be covered over by woods one day. Instead, he opted for the manicured perpetual care cemetery next door. I guess by watching his town dwindle over his lifetime, he decided to not take any more chances.