Southwestern Road Trip 2021: Overview

11-day tour covers 5 National Parks in Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas

Panorama of the sunset scene at Valley View point in Saguaro NP West
Sand Art
White Sands NP
Lion’s Tail
Carlsbad Caverns NP
“The Pinery”
Guadalupe Mountains NP
Panorama of the Painted Desert (Petrified Forest NP)

My wife and I just went on an 11-day southwestern road trip December 18-28 and visited 5 National Parks that we hadn’t visited before: Saguaro NP and Petrified Forest NP in Arizona, White Sands NP and Carlsbad Caverns NP in New Mexico, and Guadalupe Mountains NP in Texas. We also visited the Petroglyph National Monument in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

Pardon the dust; this page is under construction!

The map below shows the overall path we took during the trip. There were a few deviations, some planned and some not.

The Road Trip Itinerary: A quick look

Below is a look at the whole trip. I intend to write companion posts that will expand on the visit to each park and other notable locations and events. I will update this post accordingly to link to these posts as they become available.

Day 1: Fremont, CA to Indio, CA

For this trip, we planned this segment as a simple, boring, long stretch of freeway driving that was expected to be uneventful. Of course, there was a slight change of plans that almost did our car in! Take a look at our Day 1 exploits!

Day 2: Indio, CA to Tucson, AZ, with a stop in Phoenix

Planned as another day of simple, boring, and a long drive along a freeway, Day 2 was unlike Day 1: it was, thankfully, uneventful! But what made it more special was a brief stop we made in Phoenix on the way. Check out why that stop was special.

Day 3: Saguaro National Park (West) and San Xavier del Bac Mission

Saguaro cacti enjoying the setting sun -- Saguaro National Park (West)
Saguaro cacti enjoying the setting sun — Saguaro National Park (West)

On Day 3 we started visiting the destinations we set out to visit on the trip.

Saguaro National Park is in two sections, the Tucson Mountain District on the West and the Rincon Mountain District on the East, with the city of Tucson, Arizona in between. It’s an hour’s drive between these sections.

We spent the entire Day 3 in Saguaro National Park West, except for an excursion to San Xavier del Bac Mission in Tucson. While the excursion was a good side trip, it took some precious time away from the park.

Check the map of the western park district for reference to locate landmarks mentioned below.

We took the Desert Discovery Nature Trail and the Valley View Trail, in addition to driving on the Bajada Scenic Loop (the yellow loop) and Gates Pass (off the map to the south).

The Desert Discovery Nature Trail is a must if you have not visited the park before. It explains several things about the desert, the Saguaro cactus, and other desert plants you see there. All of this in a very easy hike.

Panoramic view of the valley

The Valley View trail is a good one to take as it is also an easy hike with a good pay-off. It ends at the top of a cliff with a panoramic view of the valley below. Standing at that high perch, you can readily appreciate the abundance of the Saguaro cacti in the area.

Our trouble was that we didn’t take that trail earlier in the day and we ran out of time to see all the spots we wanted to cover in daylight. We missed the highly recommended view of the sunset from Gates Pass.

We consoled ourselves about that miss because we have decided to visit the park again some year in March/April when the cacti will be in bloom. We’ll catch the Gates Pass sunset during that trip!

San Xavier del Bac Mission, Tucson

The dash over to this mission was on an impulse. We saw its attractive facade on a picture postcard and decided to check it out.

Unfortunately, I think it was being painted and half of it was in scaffolding, so the facade was nothing to savor this time. But we enjoyed the antique pews and the serene atmosphere throughout.

An annex dedicated to lighting candles in prayer had a cactus garden with a variety of cacti growing.

We spent Day 3 and part of Day 4 covering both sides of the park: West and East.

Day 4: Saguaro National Park (East) and then to Alamogordo, NM

A multi-armed Saguaro

While Day 3 was dedicated to spending in the western district, we used the first half of Day 4 in exploring the eastern district of the park. The eastern district, perched higher than the western side by about 2000 feet, has a different mix of plants. Even the saguaros here are more mature, with multiple arms developed, while those in the western side are generally earlier in their lifecycle, and are spears.

We started watching a virtual video tour put together by the National Park Service but ran out of time to complete it as we drove through the 8-mile paved drive ‘in a hurry’ to keep up with our schedule. Something to be taken care of on our future trip back in Spring some year.

Before we left Tucson after visiting the Saguaro National Park, we heeded a tip we received (check Day 2) and visited Beyond Bread, a local bakery that offers freshly baked bread and other goods. The loaf of jalapeno bread we got there would be a godsend in later days when we needed to whip up a quick lunch on the go as we were visiting the other National Parks.

Onward to Alamogordo, NM

Tucson, AZ to Alamogordo, NM

Once we left the Tucson area, the transit was smooth. We would eventually leave I-10 at Las Cruces, NM, and go towards Alamogordo, a few miles north of our next destination: White Sands National Park. This segment was thankfully not as long and was also uneventful.

However, our zeal in spending time in the eastern district left us with a later than planned time of arrival in Alamogordo and made us scramble to find a restaurant for dinner. Denny’s came to our rescue.

White Sands being a missile testing facility, we needed to go through a checkpoint. At least, I assumed that was the reason for that checkpoint so far away from the Mexican border.

Day 5: White Sands NP and then to Carlsbad, NM

An expanse of white in the White Sands National Park

The expanse of pristine white sand in the middle of a desert is something to behold! We were fortunate to have the time to enjoy it without worrying about White Sands National Park being closed off to visitors.

When we planned the trip, we understood that if missile testing is scheduled, then the park would be closed to all visitors for a few hours. If all you have are a few hours to visit, you cross your fingers and pray to god that you don’t land up there at the wrong time. Our prayers seemed to have worked.

An informational video at the visitor center sets the stage for understanding the park better. After picking up the customary items like picture postcards at the visitor center, we set off to explore the park. The drive within starts off as a paved road with trailheads for hiking. We took a couple of trails with exhibits that let us get an appreciation for the variety of animals and plants that manage to survive in what appears to be a barren land.

As we got deeper into the park, the road became unpaved and offered a different driving experience. Unlike the unpaved loop road in Saguaro West, the road here was excellently maintained and driving was a pleasure.

The road becomes a small loop in the end and offers several options to get down and clamber up sandbanks that look like snowbanks.

We saw several folks enjoying tobogganing on the slopes of the sand throughout the park.

A bonus was a picnic area outfitted with what I thought were wind and/or sun shields and a restroom too!

Picnic area, nicely outfitted
Alamogordo to Carlsbad (Map courtesy Google)

We spent the first half of Day 5 at White Sands National Park and then made our way over to Carlsbad to get ready for the next day when we would be visiting two National Parks in a single day!

Day 6: Carlsbad Caverns NP, NM and Guadalupe Mountains NP, TX

Stalagtites and stalagmites ready to kiss? -- Carlsbad Caverns National Park
Stalagtites and stalagmites ready to kiss? — Carlsbad Caverns National Park
Photo by Praveena Raman

We had heard so much about Carlsbad Caverns over the years, it was a treat to finally visit that National Park. We were impressed right off the bat (pun intended) as we plunged down in an elevator that showed not the floor numbers but feet descended! And we discovered that the main cave was 750 feet below the visitor center!

Bats in caves is not a new concept. But we didn’t know that bats leaving the cave en masse at dusk to forage for food is a thing. Looks like it’s a spectacle to experience at Carlsbad Caves National Park. Only, our timing was off: The bats had left the cave for warmer weather during winter and were nowhere to be seen during our December visit. One more thing for a future visit!

We have seen other caves like the Luray Caverns in Virginia and California Caverns, but the scale of the big room here is something else. We went on the self-guided tour (the only kind available for the big room) but made the tactical mistake of not also renting the companion audio tour. We missed out on a lot of information, I reckon. Even so, there was a wealth of information from the exhibits.

It was interesting to note that the elevator drop-off point in the cave is developed into an elaborate assembly area with flush toilets and vending stations for food etc. The restrooms were open, but the other amenities were closed due to the pandemic. I am sure the ecology of the caves has been tweaked a smidgeon with all these “improvements”.

At the end of the tour, we were whisked back up all those 750 feet in a jiffy. The pressure equalization must be excellent; we never felt our ears pop or had any other discomfort during the rapid descent or ascent of those elevators!

Guadalupe Mountains National Park
Guadalupe Mountain as seen from The Pinery Trail -- Guadalupe Mountains National Park
Guadalupe Mountain as seen from The Pinery Trail — Guadalupe Mountains National Park

As we were researching our destinations while planning our trip, we came across the Guadalupe Mountains National Park, situated a mere 45-minute drive from Carlsbad! We were not going to miss an opportunity to see and experience it. Due to the proximity of the park, we decided to make it a quick day trip, more as a reconnaissance for a possible future trip.

The Pinery Trail, a short, easy trail that starts from the visitor center affords a look at the vestige of an old relic: The Pinery Station, one of the stops serving Butterfield Overland Mail, the first overland mail route from St. Louis, Missouri to San Francisco, California.

This station was in operation from September 1858 to August 1859.

Ruins of the Butterfield Overland Mail’s Pinery Station

Even in such a short time, we got to learn quite a bit about the park and learned some history! We also got to mark our presence in the state of Texas for a couple of hours.

Day 7: Carlsbad to Albuquerque

Carlsbad to Albuquerque

It is rare for us to plan a road trip where one or more days are without any planned activities. While Day 7 still had a planned activity, it was dedicated to just travel, no sightseeing. With just under four and a half hours of travel involved, what this allowed us to do was to take a proverbial breath after all those days of packed activities.

Some accomplishments that this pacing afforded us are writing postcards to send to friends and family, researching activities for the upcoming days, and simply resting a bit! We took an unhurried trip to the Carlsbad Post Office to buy stamps for the postcards we wrote and mailed those postcards later in the drive-through mailbox. With plenty of time at hand, we relaxed in the hotel until checkout time and started our drive to Albuquerque.

We got a taste of the desert dust storms on the way. While we were not engulfed in dust, we saw action at a distance. We also needed to keep dodging tumbleweeds across the highway; many times they would get really close and would seem to be targeting us. At 70 mph, even a small tumbleweed can do a number on the car, so we kept ourselves on high alert during the otherwise long and boring passage.

Even with all the relaxation throughout the day, we got to our hotel in Albuquerque early enough to have a choice of restaurants to consider for dinner.

Day 8: Petroglyph National Monument, Albuquereque

Day 8 was Christmas day for us. We were returning to Albuquerque after 29 years. We had explored the city more in our previous visit, including a hot-air balloon ride. It was our destination then, but not this time; it was more of a stop on the way.

We planned our stay in Albuquerque such that we would just spend the day without counting on any excursions and sightseeing. But we discovered that, within the confines of the city, there was an opportunity to check out an outdoor attraction: Petroglyph National Monument.

Over 400 petroglyphs like these can be seen on the Piedras Marcadas Canyon Trail, part of the
Petroglyph National Monument

The visitor center at the monument was closed, of course. But there was enough information available to simply visit one of the trails, the Piedras Marcadas Canyon Trail, unencumbered. While the trail offered a good view of hundreds of petroglyphs, I was equally impressed with the way it was maintained. The trail surface was sandy and was kind on my foot that is sensitive due to plantar fasciitis.

One of the reasons we decided to stay put in Albuquerque on Christmas day is to maximize our chances of finding open restaurants. Otherwise, the day was available for impromptu local trips or simply for relaxation in our hotel room. This strategy worked really well and we caught up some more on communications. And we found a restaurant close by for dinner too.

Day 9: Albuquerque, NM to Petrified Forest NP, AZ to Holbrook, AZ

Petrified wood is everywhere, especially near the South Entrance to
The Petrified Forest National Park

We were nearing the end of our trip with Day 9 dawning on us and just the last of the planned National Parks yet to be visited. Traveling on Interstate 40, the trip from Albuquerque to the park was short enough. But we were under a strict timeline. The park closed at 5 pm and visitors were not allowed to be inside the park boundary after the gates close. But there was so much to see!

The visitor center at the north entrance off I-40 was not crowded. The ranger had the time and patience to give us a wealth of information about the park. The park map with 12 points of interest immediately told me we were going to be overwhelmed. Knowing the plight of many a visitor like us, the ranger gave us a tip: all the odd-numbered stops on the left of the map are important. Don’t miss any of them if you can help it. The even-numbered ones on the right are good but can take the back seat if time is a problem.

We did what we could, but even with these selective stops, we ran out of time. Among all the National Parks we visited on this trip, this is the one that clearly is screaming for a revisit. And there is so much information even from this abbreviated visit, I am already planning a dedicated post on this park. If you haven’t already sensed it, the painted desert panorama on the northern end and the abundance of petrified wood on the southern end are the highlights of the park.

It is interesting that the ranger manning the entrance booth, after giving the park map, added a simple instruction: “Don’t take anything from the park!” Couple that with the physical closing of the park after hours, and the only conclusion is that there must be stealing of the valuable artifacts going on. Perhaps you should make your way over there before they are all gone! (Just kidding, of course)

Day 10: Holbrook, AZ to Barstow, CA

The snow-bound Flagstaff Mountains — Photo by Praveena Raman

Just as the first two days of the trip were dedicated to just getting there, the last two days–Day 10 and Day 11–were planned as days just to get back home. But along the way we got a tip that we can convert at least one of the days as a scenic drive, making it more pleasurable than a boring, long drive on Interstate 5.

But I am getting ahead of myself.

Day 10 was simply to get to Barstow, CA, traveling on I-40 all the way. The only rub was that the route took us through Flagstaff and Williams, the area known for snowstorms in December. There was a reason we were fleeing Boston all those years ago: we don’t like driving on snow (leave alone getting stranded due to impassable conditions).

We had been monitoring the weather forecast and decided our timing would work well in avoiding a 3-5 inch snowfall predicted for that area. As we were driving towards Flagstaff, we enjoyed the view of snow-clad mountains ahead of us, as seen in the photo above.

It turned out that we had perfect driving conditions: clear skies, beautiful sunshine, gorgeous view, and dry roads with snow just outside the road surface. We really enjoyed the passage through Flagstaff and Williams. We were thinking of Grand Canyon as we passed Williams.

With easy access from Williams, the Grand Canyon National Park was on our itinerary in our original plans. How it got dropped due to the weather conditions and how that became a godsend is another story.

On the way to Barstow, we stopped in Kingman, Arizona, to learn more about the historic Route 66 which connected Los Angeles and Chicago. The road in its original form is no longer available in its entirety, but there are sections that still retain its original flavor.

The historic significance of the route is recognized by the National Park Service. Information on efforts to preserve its heritage is available here. The Kingman Visitor Center offers a lot of information on Route 66, reflecting Kingman’s pride in being a key stop along this historic route.

Day 11: Barstow, CA to Fremont, CA

Homestretch, on the complete CA-58 and more

Finally, the home stretch! We had special plans for the final leg home. We had learned just a few days earlier something about California Rte 58 which spans the territory between Barstow on the east to Santa Margarita on the west. That it is actually scenic and has some historic and intriguing travel stops along the way. I decided that we will travel the complete CA-58 end to end, to not leave any of it out.

An important feature of this route is the Tehachapi Pass which offers a look at an ingenious railroad construction that enabled the track to scale a steep mountain using a curious loop that has the track going over itself. Long trains can be seen to go over the bridge where a section of the same train is traveling on the lower side of the same bridge.

But as luck would have it, there was light snow falling when we were on the pass and visibility was really poor. there was no point in trying to stop. We told ourselves that when we come back to see the National Parks of Arizona in springtime, we will visit the Tehachapi Loop.

To add insult to injury, the road conditions on the pass were snowy. We thought we had escaped snow on the road near Flagstaff, but the Tehachapi Pass made sure we would not escape it altogether! Oh well, at least it was just a dusting.

Where CA-58 shines is to the west of I-5 as it meanders through desolate sections and crosses the coastal range to meet US-101 in Santa Margarita. The last bit on US-101, towards home, is beaten track and we got home at the end of Day 11.

Closing thoughts

There you have it, in a nutshell.

I will be capturing our varied experiences, some wonderful and some not so pretty, in more detail with companion posts in the coming weeks. Hence, the true completion of this post and the associated posts will take a few days.

Here’s a sneak preview of what I am thinking:

  • Day 1
  • Day 2
  • Saguaro National Park
  • White Sands National Park
  • Carlsbad National Park
  • Guadalupe Mountains National Park
  • Petroglyph National Monument
  • Petrified Forest National Park
  • Day 10
  • Day 11
  • Hotel round up — comparison of our accommodations during the trip
  • Food roundup — how we did as vegetarians through the trip

If you enjoyed reading this story and want to see one or more of the break-out articles above before the other, please enter a comment with your preference. I may choose the order of my writing accordingly.

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Road Trip 2021: Day 2 — A new friendship blossoms

Meeting of pen-pals was the highlight of the day

This is an account of what happened on Day 2 of our 11-day southwestern road trip in December 2021. Check this post for an overview of the full trip.

Our first target location on this road trip was Tucson, AZ, to start off by visiting the Saguaro National Park. So, just like Day 1, we planned yet another simple and long stretch of freeway driving from Indio to Tucson. Entirely on I-10, making it even simpler. However, Day 2 had in store an entirely different experience for us.

On seeing that the route took us right through Phoenix, a brainwave struck me.

But I am getting ahead of myself. First, a little background.

Years ago, my wife Praveena was contacted out of the blue by Angel, a recruiter. The employment opportunity was a good match and Praveena really enjoyed the adventure. For it was an adventure, taking up employment in North Carolina, working remotely from California.

Normally, a recruiter fades away after employment is realized and the finder’s fee is secured. But not Angel. Praveena and she got into a correspondence relationship whereby there was a steady exchange of information through picture postcards of their travels. I daresay this was a pen pal situation.

The Brainwave

Now comes my brainwave. It happens that Angel and her husband Brian live in Phoenix. I think you can connect the dots.

Just a couple of days prior to our scheduled pass through Phoenix, we asked if Angel and Brian would be available for a quick get-together for coffee. Much to our delight, they were available. The rest was logistics.

Our new friends in Phoenix

The coffee meeting lasted just a couple of hours, but we exchanged a wealth of information. We got several tips from Brian about Tucson and Saguaro National Park to help us get the most of our visit there. The most important ones were to see the gorgeous sunset from the Gates Pass lookout and also to partake in the baked goods from a local bakery, Beyond Bread. We did visit the bakery, but missed the Gates Pass sunset.

Just like Brian said as we were leaving, we can now “put a face to the postcards!”

Road Trip 2021 Day 2 was quite unlike Day 1. There was no unexpected, unforeseen detour leading to unwanted experiences–only the planned stop in Phoenix that provided us the enjoyment that was expected, foreseen, and wanted.

On the way from Phoenix to Tucson, we saw the University of Phoenix building and smiled. A couple of our friends back home did their coursework remotely and earned their graduate degrees from this university.

Since the overall drive time for Day 2 was less, we even checked into our hotel at a decent time!

This is part of a series of stories about our road trip through the southwestern United States in December 2021. Please follow the links below to check out the other parts.

Road Trip 2021: Day 1 — Surviving the nightmare

Misdirection by Google Maps almost strands us

This is an account of what happened on the very first day as we embarked on our 11-day southwestern road trip in December 2021. Check this post for an overview of the full trip.

We planned this segment from Fremont to Indio as a simple, boring, long stretch of freeway driving that was expected to be uneventful. Of course, that was not to be!

As we were cruising along on I-5, Google Maps reported a slowdown on the freeway due to an accident that would delay us by 30 minutes. It offered us an alternate route. And we took that alternate route. Big mistake.

Road Trip Snafu #1

While the alternate was just a little slower in speed, it was really smooth sailing, up to a point. That is until we got to the onramp that would get us back on I-5. Only, that onramp from Twisselman Road was closed, presumably for road construction! How can Google direct us there! Naturally, we went past that spot, and Google Maps promptly rerouted us into yet another alternate: Lost Hills Road. The nightmare began.

Road Trip Snafu #2

By the time we reached that point, the sun had set and we were into nighttime driving. What made this stretch a nightmare was that Lost Hills Road off Twisselman Road was nothing more than a collection of potholes and mud pits. The potholes may have been tolerable for trucks, but they sure wanted to destroy the undercarriage of our Toyota Prius. We did catch one of them badly and heard our undercarriage scrape…twice. Ouch.

Driving on that “road” was essentially negotiating an obstacle course for over five miles. All along, the fast-moving I-5 was in plain sight, just to add to the frustration. Somehow we survived that stretch and then got back on track.

The Silver Lining

Our predicament in the dark on a desolate road had just one advantage: I could have a rest stop before continuing on our arduous journey!

I believe we lost about an hour in this escapade, but hopefully avoided a half-hour delay on the freeway, thereby losing, at best, just half an hour on the whole!

We swore never to take a detour off I-5 by choice again.

Important life lesson: No voluntary detours unless you are familiar with the area!

The rest of the way to Indio proved uneventful. Except for a nagging question in my mind about what we may have done to the undercarriage of our beloved Prius.

This is part of a series of stories about our road trip through the southwestern United States in December 2021. Please follow the links below to check out the other parts.

Where’s the Sandbar?

I was standing on a sandbar, in chest-high seawater. I decided to swim over the sandbar. After a few yards, decided to stand again, as I was uneasy with swimming.

Oops! Where was that sandbar?

Time to panic and deploy my safety net: elementary backstroke. After what seemed an eternity, I did reach the shore.

I was lucky that beautiful summer day years ago.

Lucky because there was no rip-tide or even gentler current that would whisk me away.

Lucky because there was no wave to enter my nostrils during my backstroke.

I was also foolish that day. What was I thinking? Swimming in the ocean after learning to swim just a few months prior!

“Luck is for fools. It’s all they have to hope for.” — Stephen King

I haven’t swum in the ocean since. Even fools can learn!

Freedom can be a problem

A simple mindset is your solution

Freedom is to not feel like this guy.

Freedom is our ability to roam where we like, when we like, how we like.

Freedom is our ability to do what we like.

Freedom is our ability to choose what we experience.

Is this choice, the freedom of choice, the absolute best you can have?

Say, you go shopping. Grocery shopping. With a cart full of stuff, you approach the check stand. If your grocery store is like mine, what do you find? Several checkout lines and a choice for you to make. Perfect, right?

But if you are like me, the pressure builds…you take a quick look at the length of each line…perhaps even how many items are ahead of you in each line. After a fast calculation in real-time, you make a quick decision and before someone else beats you to it, join a line of your choice.

Perfect, right? If you are like me, I can guarantee you that one of the lines you rejected will move faster and you just kick yourself for your poor choice!

I want to contrast this with another store we used to have in our area, Fry’s Electronics, which I found refreshingly unique in their approach. When you are ready, you join a single line, sometimes long, and wait your turn. With several cashiers serving, the line moves fast and you feel good about the first-in-first-out service.

Did you notice that you had zero choices in the second scenario? Yet you felt properly served; at least I always did.

What’s this paradox?

How can choice be bad? What does this say about freedom of choice?

In the supermarket scenario, I have, at times, observed gleefully that I did better than people in the other lines; I got through well before people who were already in the lines I had rejected. When that happens, it gives me a cheap thrill for having enjoyed an unfair advantage. So, it’s not always bad; just chancy. Still seems less desirable than having a fair process that serves people in order.

What’s the real story here?

The solution

I turn to the serenity prayer to put things in perspective:

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.

 — Serenity Prayer

In the Fry’s Electronics example, I have no choice. No freedom to change anything. So, I accept whatever comes my way and practice serenity by taking solace in the first-in-first-out justice. I ignore the lack of freedom to engineer any unfair advantage in my favor.

In the supermarket, I try my best to make my choice — it takes courage to make the choice because I can easily be wrong if I care about the first-in-first-out service. Look at the benefits choice offers: I may choose a line because I like the cashier working that line. Or that the line is not in a high traffic location. Choice opens new doors.

There’s more

When I first moved to the USA, I was pursuing graduate study and went through the usual application process to gain acceptance in graduate programs. I applied to 10 different universities to increase my chances of success.

Guess what, I got into exactly one program and struck out with the other nine! Talk about lack of choice. This actually was a blessing because there was zero pressure. No chance of any remorse for a wrong choice made in choosing the program. Everything has worked out and I have thrived.

I know of a different scenario unfolding just now. There is an instance of someone having a job offer in hand and holding out for a better offer that may be coming through in a matter of days. By choosing to wait beyond Sept 30, he loses one of the incentives in the first offer worth thousands of dollars! If the second offer doesn’t come through, what heartache! If the second offer does come through, he will have the truly difficult choice of turning down one of the two stellar offers. This is not anything out of the ordinary; millions of people have faced similar predicaments.

While the choices are tough in the short term, the loss of the incentive bonus can be offset in the future with the advantages realized by the second job offer, should it come through.

What’s the lesson here?

In both pairs of scenarios above, lack of choice comes through as a ‘blessing’. But we need to look deeper and ponder the case with the choice to understand its benefits. Its core benefit of providing desirable choices should not be overlooked by giving too much importance to the ‘problem’.

Freedom of choice is, indeed, a blessing. It just tests our character at times and keeps us on our toes to keep making rational decisions. 

Once in a while, when we are faced with the lack of freedom to choose, we just need to see the opportunity to be serene!

The above is my response to a writing prompt.

I am beginning a new project — responding to the “Writehere” writing prompts from the Creators Hub, a Medium publication (you may recall that I am a Medium member).

I am collecting these prompts here and plan to work my way through them at my own pace.

In this post, I offer my response to the prompt that started it all:

Week 1, prompt 1: What does “freedom” mean to you?

Appalachian Trail: Start of my “Journey of a Thousand Miles”

A walk on the serene Appalachian Trail
A walk on the serene Appalachian Trail, Shenandoah National Park, VA

One of the earliest features of the USA that I came to know about was the Appalachian Trail. But it would take 45 years before something came off that knowledge!

When my friend, Doug Greene, reported recently on his travels on the Pacific Crest Trail with gorgeous photos, it had an immediate effect: I wanted to experience that myself first-hand.

But the challenges of such a hike brought me down to earth.

Then I discovered that our trip to the Sundial Bridge actually put us across the PCT! Sadly, we had crossed it while we were on the highway and didn’t even know that we did.

So, a new possibility dawned on me. I wanted to be on the lookout for sampling the trail in segments. I can drive to various points where day trips along the trail would be feasible.

Long before knowing about the existence of the PCT, I had heard about the Appalachian Trail. Only, walking along that trail was just a distant dream; I had always considered it to be too remote and beyond my reach. But the curiosity always simmered in my mind about what that would be like.

Last weekend, quite unexpectedly, I had the chance. We went on a family excursion to the Shenandoah National Park along the Skyline Drive atop the Blue Ridge Mountains west of DC. Our main target was the Dark Hollow Falls, a pretty, multi-level falls in the park.

Dark Hollow Falls
Dark Hollow Falls, Shenandoah NP

Having enjoyed the descent to the falls and back, we were primed for more hiking in the park. We discovered that a segment of the Appalachian Trail was right there, within a mile!

Naturally, we went for it.

Access was super easy, with a quick connection from the Milam Gap parking lot. The segment we walked was level, well maintained, and was picturesque with trees all around.

We met a number of hikers along the trail in the hour or so we spent there. A solo hiker was going from Harper’s Ferry, WV, all the way south to the trail’s end in Georgia. He was impressed by how well the trail was maintained where we were. I guess we lucked out.

We also met members of a group of hikers, pacing themselves into smaller clusters. One pair was just like us; on the trail for a quick day trip.

It was bear country and we were nervously surveying our surroundings for bear sightings as we walked along. Armed with the knowledge that bears may leave us alone if we talk to them or sing to them, my wife asked me to keep singing just as a preventative! I was voicing my doubt about the wisdom of that approach; we may be inviting bears to visit us with our captivating music, but I don’t think that reasoning went far!

Our round trip that day on the trail was just a little over 2 miles; a far cry from the 2200-mile stretch of the entirety of it. But, I can claim now that I have walked on the famed Appalachian Trail!

Moreover, we were treated to a little frolicking by a couple of fawns grazing in the meadow with their mother. I caught the tail end of it in the video below.

Deer and fawn near the Appalachian Trail
Deer and fawn near the Appalachian Trail, Shenandoah National Park

It was a fitting end to our quick trip to the park. With a little push from serendipity (or synchronicity as Julia Cameron calls it), I was able to get on the board with a walk on one of the famed Triple-Crown trails of the USA: the Pacific Crest Trail, the Continental Divide Trail, and the Appalachian Trail.

A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step

— A Chinese proverb

Now, my “journey of a thousand miles” has started; I just need to take my next steps by learning more about how to sample segments of these grand trails in small increments.

Sundial Bridge: An Architectural Gem with an Uncommon Design

The Redding, CA landmark offers easy access, away from the bustle

The Sundial Bridge (All photos by the author except where noted)

I stood mesmerized by the sleek, slanted, gleaming white column brightly lit by the evening sun against the clear blue sky. The cables tying the column to where I was standing, a pedestrian bridge across the Sacramento River in Redding, California with translucent glass panels for the deck, made it all the more intriguing and aesthetically pleasing.

I got the first glimpses of the Sundial Bridge when a friend of ours had visited and posted its pictures years ago. The photos were so intriguing that I wanted to visit the bridge. But it would be more than five years before I could fulfill that plan!

The wait was worth it.


Designed by Santiago Calatrava, a Spanish Swiss architect of international renown, the bridge sports a massive tower. As a structural engineer, Calatrava has a long list of projects around the world known for their architectural statements.

The Sundial Bridge in Redding uses many of the design elements of Calatrava’s other projects but adds a twist too.

The bridge features a tower, slanted at 42 degrees, that appears to reach for the heavens. It acts as a cantilever and counterbalances the weight of the bridge with the help of 14 cables. The strength and integrity of these cables are vital. They support both the tower and the bridge by helping them counterbalance each other. Their visual aesthetics are what we see and enjoy as we take a stroll.

The Sundial Bridge is an assembly of parts manufactured in faraway locations. The steel cables were made in England; the translucent glass panels that form the deck came from Quebec; the steel support structure of the bridge itself was made in Vancouver, Washington; and Spain provided the broken white tiles used for decoration of the sundial.

Interestingly, this bridge uses gravity in a creative way. The conventional design uses support on either bank (and sometimes more) of a river. This keeps the deck of the bridge from collapsing due to gravity. Calatrava’s design uses the gravitational pull on the bridge as well as the pylon tower to cancel each other through the tension in the cables.

Yoga poses illustrate the bridge structures

I visualize these by picturing two yoga poses — the plank (left) and the modified boat pose (right). Plank exemplifies the conventional bridge where the torso and the legs are like the deck of the bridge with firm supports on both sides, namely the feet and the hands (or elbows depending on how the yogi does it). The modified boat pose I am thinking of is where the body is in the boat pose but the hands are grasping the legs. In this picture, the legs are the bridge deck and the upper body is the pylon, with the hands acting like the cables that help the two parts counterbalance each other. We take a little artistic license here, as the legs are not horizontal. The model applies, however, in depicting the forces involved.

While it looks sleek and inviting, the cantilever design is not as strong as the regular construction. Think of someone pushing the yogi in the poses above. It would take considerable effort to push a yogi in the plank pose to fall over. But it is quite easy to do the same to the yogi in the modified boat pose. The Sundial Bridge serves just pedestrians and bicyclists and so the challenges to its stability are more manageable.

Aesthetics and driving traffic

The engineer in me marveled at the delicate details of the construction. But the artist in me just saw the aesthetics and the ambiance on that cloudless, balmy, summer day.

The evening sun adding shimmer to the full flow of the Sacramento River

The emphasis on aesthetics at the expense of robust engineering appears deliberate. The project started in the early 1990s with the goal of increasing tourism in the Redding area. It was a conscious decision to add a bridge where there was none before and drive more traffic to the area. The project ended up costing eight times the original estimate. But it was successful after its opening in 2004. Visitations rose 42% in the first year. Millions of dollars worth of commerce and tourism ensued each year thereafter.

Sundial Bridge cares about ecology

One of the design decisions was to leave the river free of obstructions for salmon to migrate up the river during the salmon run. The Sacramento River offers an important spawning habitat for the Pacific Salmon that swim upstream to multiply for the next season.

The 700-foot span of the bridge has no touchpoint in the river itself. The cantilever design made this possible, as seen below.

The cantilever design leaves the river undisturbed
Translucent deck of the bridge — Photo by Razster at the English Wikipedia

Another aspect of the bridge that’s special is the translucent structural glass panels that form the deck of the bridge. These allow light to pass through them, and this is supposed to maintain the natural environment as intact as feasible (by not blocking sunlight) for the salmon in the water.

Night lighting is great for humans. How about the fish?

But the bridge is lit from below in the night. That ruins the advantage of translucence if you ask me; it compromises the night experience for the salmon! The only beneficiary seems to be the pedestrians and cyclists who would have light in the night for their own safety and enjoyment.

The sundial

The tower doubles as the sundial gnomon
The sundial markings on the ground

Keeping with the theme of entertaining tourists, a twist in the construction adds to the experience: The sundial. The 42-degree angle of the tower, as it is pointing precisely North, opens up the possibility of a sundial. There is a sundial patch built into the grounds. The tower acts as the giant gnomon and the markings on the ground act as the dial. But it may be that it is more of a talking point than of any utility. It indicates the correct time on only one day of the year: the summer solstice, on June 20 or 21. Regardless, it gives the bridge its catchy name.


While my first trip to the Sundial Bridge was part of a massive road trip in 2017, it didn’t happen on the solstice day for me to verify the accuracy of the sundial. This year, the summer solstice was on Sunday, June 20th. So, my wife and I undertook a convenient weekend trip to Redding in June to do that verification.

The adventure started early. It was supposed to be a simple 4-hour drive up to Redding where we would take in the sundial’s performance, check out a couple of other locations in the area, and get back home on Sunday.

The drive up was anything but smooth! Though sobering after the fact, we are grateful for our luck that kept us reasonably on schedule and, most importantly, safe. Once in Redding, everything went according to plan.

Sundial Bridge in action, showing accurate time on summer solstice day 2021

You can see that the sundial was spot on, with one edge of the shadow showing the precise time when the photo was taken: 11 am.

Sundial Bridge: A worthwhile stop

All in all, the Sundial Bridge lives up to its purpose. It attracts tourists with its interesting architecture, beautiful views of the Sacramento River, and fun with the sundial. It attracted me to make the trip, contribute to the local economy through our lodging and food expenditure, among others. I found that, despite COVID-19 concerns, there were a number of visitors in the scorching sun to check out the accuracy of the sundial!

Want to visit?

Location of Sundial Bridge (Map courtesy of Google)

Sundial Bridge is situated in the city of Redding, California, with quick and easy access from Interstate 5. Yet, it is secluded and shielded from city noise for a peaceful sojourn.

The bridge and its surroundings offer a perfect day trip destination for the entire family. If you are visiting with children, you will want to check out the Turtle Bay Exploration Park in the vicinity. Parking and bridge access is free, and the bridge is open through the night.

For more information on the bridge including its history, please visit Turtle Bay Exploration Park website.

The Day We Tempted Fate

Every once in a while we do things that make us shudder after the fact. The possibilities of what could have been are sometimes daunting.

One such thing happened to my wife and me last week.

Praveena and I were on the road, driving along a segment that we have travelled many times before. An unremarkable section, if you ask me.

Not last Friday.

We were carrying on a happy conversation on the phone with our son to salvage an otherwise drab period of driving.

As we were moseying along, south of Fairfield on I-680N and approaching the Marshview interchange, we came across a captivating and dangerous sight.

We saw thick smoke. We saw it develop into black smoke.

A few hundred yards closer, we saw actual flames on the west side of 680 North, in the median. The wind was fierce and caused the smoke to scoot eastward before it had any chance of rising.

The wind kindled the flames and drove them towards the road surface. We actually saw the flames jump over the road where we would have been travelling just a few seconds later.

Slowly, and uncertainly, we took the exit and followed some vehicles eastward. That road just got us to a frontage road close to the freeway. We saw one of the vehicles, a truck which was right in front of us on the off-ramp, make a left turn and travel north braving the flames which had already spread to the brink of the frontage road by that point. It was now or never.

It looked more never than now.

Chickened out

Photo by Praveena Raman

As I slithered over to the stop sign at the end of Marshview Road and needed to decide which way to go on the frontage road, I started to turn left as though I was going to do the same maneuver as the truck. Praveena’s heart stopped, I am sure, for a moment. Incredulous, she was blurting out “What are you doing?” in a rather forceful way. In my usual calm and collected manner, I said nothing and did a cool u-turn, offering Praveena the best seat in town to see the flames and take a video of it using her iPhone. We got the picture above!

After I crawled back to the on-ramp to I-680 and found it hopeless in terms of offering safe passage, I did another cool u-turn right in the intersection—much to the bewilderment of the two cars stopped at the off-ramp stop line. Our eyes met and there was a visibly puzzled question arising out of the lead driver: “What are you doing?”

It was the day for that question to be hurled at me with equal intensity by two completely unrelated individuals in a span of two minutes! I dutifully indicated what I was about to do and that spurred that driver into quick action whereby she got in front of me going eastward!

At the end of the T-junction again, I made the only choice left—an inevitable turn to the right. It took me away from the fire and I felt safer. Only, the road took me in the direction I didn’t like. Eventually, I did turn around and headed right back to the troubled messy area.

Of course, I was at the tail end of the line of cars waiting to get back to the freeway. We saw firefighters beginning to get set up to fight the fire.

As we dutifully waited in line, we saw another pick up truck swiftly pass us all in one fell swoop and smoothly reach the on-ramp to I-680N and turn in there!

What? Is that allowed?

As I was pondering that question, I saw that every vehicle in front of me in the line dared the same maneuver. I promptly followed the truck in front of me, not to be left behind.

Video by Praveena Raman

As we were approaching the on-ramp, our hearts sank. There was thick smoke with very little visibility and an acrid smell welcoming us to the on-ramp. Our solace was the truck in front of us. With a high perch if he could see things and feel safe enough to brave that landscape, who am I to complain! I confidently entered the on-ramp.

Perhaps I gave too much credit to the truck driver.

With a fire engine blocking half of the on-ramp, he was gingerly trying to find his way to the freeway. We saw him driving over actively burning brushes.

I had enough clearance behind the fire engine on the road, but wanted to make sure I didn’t scrape it. I had to be slow when I didn’t want to be.

Within a hundred feet of this ordeal lay clear skies and fresh air! We left the smoke and fire behind.

So, what’s the problem?

Our ordeal seemed to be minimal. Why shudder after the fact?

Just that fires can spread really fast (remember the Santa Rosa fire or the Paradise fire?) and all the cars on the highway were sitting ducks with nowhere to go, should the fire have gotten out of control.

But more than that, we voluntarily entered the on-ramp, expecting a quick passage through the trouble spot, but got stuck behind the truck right in the smoke and the fires still going strong, mere feet from our van.

We were able to do that because we had arrived on the scene right when it happened and the police hadn’t yet arrived to stop/reroute the traffic.

Later that night, we learned that we had escaped a two-hour closure of the road. We were very lucky to have had minimal delay and also no damage to the van due to the fire or our lungs due to the smoke.

Only, our van still stinks of smoke!

Lemon Pickle Recipe

The South Indian style of making Lemon Pickle

I have grown up enjoying lemon pickle as a kid and even today, I look forward to its taste in the creative ways I add it to my food. It bears mentioning that the South Indian style pickle is generally too hot and spicy to consume directly. It needs to be added as a condiment, in small quantities, to the main food.

I am fortunate to live in California where lemons grow well. We have a lemon tree in the backyard and I have made many batches of the lemon pickle over the years.

The beauty of it is that with proper canning, the pickles made can be stored at room temperature for a very long time, from months to even years, as long as the seal holds. Let’s take a look at the simplest recipe I follow to make this delicacy.

Variations to this are possible to make the taste further refined and nuanced, but this is the core recipe.


Lemons – 10-15 (Makes 2-3 quarts of pickle)

Extra Hot Chilli Powder – 1/4 cup per quart of pickle made (adjust to taste)

Salt – 1/4 cup per quart of pickle

Sesame Oil – 1/4 cup per quart of pickle

Turmeric Powder – 1/2 tsp

Black Mustard Seeds – 1/4 cup


Day 1

Wash the lemons well and remove all surface dirt.

Cut each lemon in half and remove the pits. I generally use a handheld wooden lemon juicer to drain the pulp and juice into a sieve over a pot. This makes it easy to fish out the pits and not lose the pulp and any juice along the way.

Cut the cored shells into small pieces and collect them in a stock pot. After all the pits have been removed, transfer the pulp and juice into the stock pot. Add a little water if it is too thick.

Add the turmeric powder and stir well.

Bring the stock pot’s contents to a boil. Then let it simmer for 10 minutes.

Remove from heat and let the pot cool.

Add the salt and chilli powder and mix well.

Cover the stock pot and let it stand overnight for 12-24 hours. Stir the contents periodically and mix it well.

Day 2

In a frying pan, add the sesame oil and start heating. Add some of the mustard seeds  and wait for them to pop. Once the initial seeds pop, add the rest of the mustard seeds and cover the pan with a slight opening. You can hear the seeds pop vigorously. When all the seeds finish popping, turn off the heat.

Transfer the hot oil into the stock pot and stir to mix it well.

Using the canning funnel, start transferring the pickle mix into the Mason jars. Leave a 1/4 inch air gap on top in each jar. Make sure the rim of the jars are clean and don’t have stray pickle mix on them. Wipe it clean if necessary.

Secure each jar with its lid and the ring. Screw the ring on hand-tight. Place all the jars in the canning stock pot and fill water in the pot to above the top of the lids. The bottles need to be fully submerged throughout the canning process.

Heat the canning pot and bring the water to a boil. Let the water boil for 10 minutes. Remove heat.

Using canning tongs, lift each jar and place on a cooling rack on the countertop. Do not touch the lid or the rings, even after they start to cool.

One by one, within a few minutes, you should hear the lids pop down to seal, due to the vacuum created by the cooling.

After all the lids have sealed, unscrew the rings to see if any debris needs to be cleaned on the outside of the jars. Clean the rings and the grooves on the jars if necessary. Screw back all the rings, hand-tight, to get them ready for storage.

At this time, if you apply a slight pressure on the center of the lid, there should be no movement. All the seals should have been made by the cooling. If any jar had a lid that hadn’t popped down, store it in a refrigerator and earmark it for consumption sooner than later.

Any jar that has been properly sealed is ready for long term storage!


The South Indian Lemon Pickle is a great condiment to add to any meal. The traditional, classic, use is in adding it to a course of yogurt and rice mixture. But you can let your imagination fly in adapting it to your taste.

For example, I used to drive my wife nuts by adding it to my bowl of oatmeal in the morning, after I added some milk to it.

Proof that you can invent your own comfort spot in how you can add it to your meals!