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I’ve decided there’s two types of people. There’s the type that hears the words “driving” and “cross country” together and gets excited, and there’s the other type, who have probably done it before. The pandemic, it seems, has turned most of us into the former. When my partner and I had to relocate from New York to Los Angeles recently with our seven-year-old golden retriever in tow, we decided to make the most of it. We doubled our masks, lined the backseat of our car in dog blankets, and set off for the West Coast from the East, with the intention of zigzagging around a bit through the middle. No one who heard our route thought it sounded efficient, but we didn’t care. The guiding principles behind our drive were this: we would stay at great hotels, we would eat excellent food, and we would see as much of America as reasonably possible within two weeks, driving under seven hours a day if we could help it. It was the best trip we’d taken in years, and not just because it was the only real trip we’d taken in nearly a year.
But first, a note: We are in the midst of a global pandemic, and there are certain considerations to be made, both to protect yourself and the people whose communities you intend to pass through. There are ways to travel safely. You also may be fully vaccinated, or reading this from a slightly sunnier corner of the future, when the world and this beautiful nation of ours has opened up a bit. Let’s start there.
Our first stop was Blackberry Farm, in Walland, Tennessee. (Well, that’s not exactly true, thanks to a nor’easter, our first stop was a roadside motel in Virginia, where we drank take-away Manhattans from New York’s truly excellent Houseman restaurant out of plastic cups with vending machine ice. But we’ll ignore that for the purposes of this itinerary, beyond the fact that I really do recommend accepting the fact that on any road trip there will likely be weather or automotive issues at one point or another, and that it’s best to file these under ‘Acts of God’ and ‘This will be a funny story someday.’) We diverted from our initial plan—to take the much recommended and slightly longer route via the Skyline Drive through Shenandoah National Park, which was closed due to weather—and drove straight to Walland. We arrived at Blackberry Farm as the snow was stopping, a gentle dusting of it visible across the farm’s 42,000 rolling acres of perfect white picket fence lined verdant pasture, and I’m sure Shenandoah is incredible, but after the motel I couldn’t imagine a sight quite as beautiful as that.
Blackberry Farm has become famous amongst city folks for having perfected the aspirational country escape, from the dangerously delicious farm to table cuisine (the biscuits alone could have convinced me to extend our stay another week) to the almost over-the-top attention of the staff, who number in the high hundreds and tend to provide the kinds of extras you didn’t know you needed—like a side of cheese grits at breakfast, just to try, because your eyes lingered there when you looked at the menu.
The Relais & Chateaux resort’s rambling pastures hold pigs, sheep, and chickens, all of whom contribute to the atmosphere, the ecosystem, and the menu. All meals are included in the cost of the stay, and between indulging at the more casual Dogwood restaurant, and the more formal James Beard award-winning option, The Barn, guests can arrange seasonal outings and activities like horseback riding, archery, clay pigeon shooting, or mountain biking, among others. They can also wander over to the hotel’s spa for treatments, or visit former elephant and horse trainer Jim Sanford at the property’s kennel, where he breeds and trains a crop of Lagotto Romagnolo dogs, the truffle hunting breed most recently made famous in the documentary The Truffle Hunters. (Blackberry Farm’s truffle hunters have an 8-year waitlist, a reportedly $8,200 price tag, and a boldfaced list of current and future owners, including New York chef Danny Meyer, who was set to receive one of the puppies we met a few days later.) We stayed for a few days to take advantage of the bucolic splendor: hiking with a local guide, eating to excess, and enjoying our cottage’s perfect bed, deep soaking tub, and wood-burning fireplace. For those desiring more activity, the hotel’s newer nearby Blackberry Mountain property offers full four-season wellness programming and slightly less butter-drenched fare, but is less butter really why you came to Tennessee?
Onward, to Memphis, to trade country sights for city, though much was on pause due to the pandemic. Downtown, though beautiful, was quiet when we pulled in, with Beale Street’s normally raucous hordes of tourists absent, the iconic Stax Records dark, and the National Civil Rights Museum, housed in the former Lorraine Motel, closed to visitors. (The latter is worth a stop even just to view from the exterior, with its red and white wreath marking the spot where Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, and the window used by James Earl Ray still cracked across the street, to deeply moving effect.) We strolled down the sun-drenched banks of the Mississippi River and up Front Street, once the center of the cotton trade, to the grand old Peabody Hotel. The Peabody is famous for its twice-daily red-carpeted parade of live ducks from a palatial rooftop aerie to a marble fountain in the center of the lobby, a tradition that started back in the 1930s. The presence of our pup (who, while not a hunter—of truffles, or anything else for that matter, except perhaps discarded pizza crusts—was technically bred to collect water fowl) meant that we had to take in the scene from the mezzanine, above the action, which I actually recommend for the aerial view. Every morning at 11am the Peabody ducks strut through to a soundtrack of John Philips Sousa marches, led by a uniformed member of staff, and there the ducks remain until 5pm, when the performance happens in reverse (a cocktail is highly recommended). Across the street from the hotel you will find the rightfully critically acclaimed Charles Vergos’ Rendezvous, which continues to serve some of the best dry rub barbeque in town with a mask and a smile and a very good mini key lime pie to finish.
The next morning we turned up for the earliest tour slot at Graceland, which on a dreary winter weekday at 9am was essentially a private one. (It is not, however, pet friendly, meaning that Hugo had to stay at the hotel, who had made him very comfortable with his own Peabody Duck themed merchandise.) Elvis’ former home certainly Takes Care of Business™, with iPad audio guides leading socially distanced visitors safely through the property, from the kitchen where the fried peanut butter and banana sandwiches were made, to the meditation garden that became much of the Presley family’s final resting place. The King’s planes, cars, trophies, gold records, military and Hollywood exploits, wedding attire and various stage costumes are all on display in various visitor centers, along with accordant gift shops and restaurants, and the museum has set up VR experiences scattered throughout, including one which inserts guests into a serenade of ‘I Can’t Help Falling In Love With You’ from the ‘Aloha in Hawaii’ special, and a simulation of sitting front row at a 1970s Elvis concert in Las Vegas.
From there we collected our own hound dog and boxed lunches from the Peabody and drove West, through the natural splendor of the Ozark national forest and on to Bentonville, Arkansas, home to the very first Walmart and still the headquarters for the corporation, making it an international destination for businesses, and now, thanks to Walmart heiress Alice Walton, a must-visit for fans of American art. We checked in at the 21c Museum Hotel, home to an interesting rotating contemporary art collection and very good bar and restaurant, The Hive, but the real reason to stay there is that it abuts the winding, woody, incredible-art-lined walk across the 120 acre park to The Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art.
Founded by Alice Walton in 2005, Crystal Bridges is free to the public; expertly, intuitively curated; and a totally singular art viewing experience that can easily count itself among America’s premiere art institutions. Book a (free) timed entry slot in advance and give yourself an hour or two in the 50,000 square feet of galleries. At any time of day it’s incredible, but the glassy Moshe Safdie building is especially enrapturing at dusk, with fewer other visitors around to interrupt your private audience with Georgia O'Keeffe, Kehinde Wiley, Norman Rockwell, and Mark Rothko. Afterwards we returned to the town square, passing by the outdoor installations by Louise Bourgeois and James Turrell on the way, and were back in time for our dinner reservation at Preacher’s Son, in an airy former church a block from the hotel. A New American restaurant led by Arkansas-native Neal Gray, whose resume includes Blue Hill and the French Laundry, among others, the excellent Preacher’s Son would hold its own in any major city, so the fact that it’s here makes it all the more exceptional.
The next morning we made our way south towards Texas, past many an enormous Walmart warehouse and right through Oklahoma. We pulled into Fort Worth’s historic Stockyards district as the sun began to set over a crowd waiting to buy tickets to the rodeo. We checked in at the 114 year old Stockyards Hotel, which caters to cowboys and famously once sheltered Bonnie and Clyde, but I would point you to the brand new and very snazzy Hotel Drover, which opens this March a mere block away. We left Hugo at the hotel and headed to the city’s famed Kimbell Art Center to take in works from the African, Asian, Ancient American and European collections in galleries designed by Louis Kahn and Renzo Piano. For dinner, dodge the largely unmasked crowds roaming the bar scene in the Stockyards and duck into the elegant Lonesome Dove, a neighborhood mainstay since 2000 helmed by local celebrity chef Tim Love, where the menu includes hits like rocky mountain elk, rabbit and rattlesnake.
The next morning, we stopped by Vaquero Coffee, where the coffee is excellent and there is frequently available a sort of heavenly sausage roll; a meat-spicy-cheese-and-slightly-sweet-bun creation that I incorrectly identified on Instagram as a kolache. (It was, in fact, a friend “Tex-splained” to me later, a klobásník: it’s a matter of savory vs sweet fillings.) We continued to make our way west, whereupon it soon became clear that all was not well with the car. I have since made promises to never speak ill of the car in public or private and so will spare you the exact details, except to say that should you find yourself with a few hours to kill at a Meineke’s in San Angelo, Texas, the locals are incredibly neighborly (and thanks to a large military base nearby, used to new arrivals with far-flung license plates). There is a Tropical Smoothie Cafe a quick walk away from the car repair joint for refreshments, and a lovely little park great for dog walks. If you find yourself staying for dinner, Armenta’s Cafe is the spot.
We arrived in Marfa a good five and a half hours later than we’d planned, hurtling whiteknuckled through what we would later learn was uniquely stunning scenery in the pitch black. (If you can drive it while the sun is up, do.) Cochineal chef and co-owner Alexandra Gates, who during the pandemic is doing decadent, deeply delicious takeout on Fridays and Saturdays only, met me outside her restaurant with the dinners we’d optimistically ordered for a 7pm pickup, and for that alone I would personally give her a Michelin star if I could, but honestly, her food doesn’t need the help—it’s that good. We arrived at El Cosmico and located our large trailer by moonlight, tucking into Cochineal’s sumptuous paella and tequila cocktails and then ourselves into the very comfortable bed. The next morning, we surveyed the premises, which are as Instagram-friendly as a person could hope for, with funkily painted trailers, yurts, camping sites, an open air community kitchen, and a stage area all centered under the massive, open, West Texas sky. It’s the kind of place the term “good vibes” was made for, where you want to set up camp permanently—a good thing given we were made aware by the hotel in advance that local hospital access being extremely limited, guests are encouraged to avoid interacting with Marfans as much as possible during the pandemic. To that end, two of the most popular reasons for visiting, the Chinati Foundation and Donald Judd’s offices and studios, are currently closed. When you are able to visit safely, I recommend you make your way in the morning to Do Your Thing for a sasparilla latte and an Everything Toast, which is somehow so much better than a bagel while not being a bagel at all. A few streets away, The Sentinel is home to a local newspaper, an excellent boutique and cafe and also a scone I have frequently and recently described as “life changing.”
There are shops and galleries and lots of things to see for such a succinct little place as Marfa, and a phenomenon known as the Marfa Mystery Lights draws visitors from across the country to a viewing spot nine miles outside of town once the sun goes down, but given that we were restricting our interactions with other people, we made our way instead to Big Bend National Park. The sweeping majesty of Big Bend cannot be summed up in any real way other than to say that this country’s national parks are a gift and we should all be participating in and supporting them as much as we possibly can. That said, dogs are not allowed on the park trails, and so we opted for a scenic drive along some of the 100 miles of paved roads instead. (The park publishes their own newsletter-style visitors guide, The Paisano, which is free with admission; grab one for suggested itineraries, routes, history, and other useful intel when you arrive.)
We left Marfa and El Cosmico a few days later, driving North through a smattering of the outdoor art installations that line the highway and making a brief stop to admire Guadalupe Mountains National Park, home to the four highest peaks in Texas, before continuing into New Mexico. We passed through Roswell, where everything, including the McDonalds, is alien-themed. We arrived in Santa Fe and checked in to the Inn of the Five Graces, an exquisite fever dream of kilim, suzani, adobe, carved wood, and tile mosaics nestled in the city’s historic heart. The 24-room hotel, a Relais & Chateaux and an American Express Fine Hotels & Resorts property, is owned by designers Ira and Sylvia Seret, who met in New York in the 1960s, initially collaborating on Afghani embroidered velvet sheepskin coats that were popular with Jimi Hendrix and the Beatles. Together they developed a business importing stunning textiles and antiques from the Middle East and beyond, moved to New Mexico, and created a hotel/ pleasure palace that you’ll never want to leave. (Their store, Seret & Sons, in downtown Santa Fe, is a treasure trove of bohemian splendor that very well may inspire a total home makeover.) A walk down the street from the hotel takes you past the San Miguel Mission (the oldest church in America), and not far from Loretto Chapel, whose mysterious, sense-defying spiral staircase has been called a miracle. Downtown are internationally renowned boutiques like the must-visit cult-favorite Japanese brand Visvim, and museum-worthy textiles and jewelry at Shiprock. During the pandemic, museums were closed and the city’s restaurants were limited to takeout or outside dining only: The Shed and Tomasitas are two classics with spacious patios for easy Southwestern fare (always go Christmas style with your chile), but it’s the onsen-inspired Ten Thousand Waves, perched on a hill overlooking the city, that provides the most singular (and delicious) eating experience.
A few days later we left for Arizona with a bucket-list tick mark to make: seeing the Grand Canyon. We arrived at the southern rim before dark, and walked Hugo along the great open maw of the thing, which feels both vertigo-inducing and soul-enriching to see in person, like the earth has caved in on itself in some enormous, impossible way. We checked into Yavapai Lodge, the only pet friendly lodging option inside the park. We rose before dawn and drove out to Yaki point, hiking a mile or so to watch the sun come up over the canyon. (If you do this, and you really should, wear layers.) Later that morning we drove along the rim of the canyon using pandemic-closed bus routes usually forbidden to private cars, watching the Colorado river wind through the depths below. We stopped at Hermit’s Rest for a freshly baked cookie from the snack bar and talked about what it must have been like as an early American or a settler to happen across this falling away of the world as you knew it. We recommitted ourselves to only saying nice things about the car and drove on to Phoenix.
Our penultimate stop, the Mountain Shadows resort in Scottsdale, has the kind of clean, mid-century lines and crisp, modern interiors that make a perfect marriage for a dramatic desert setting like the nearby Camelback Mountain. The hotel is centered around a glitzy, popular pool, after which the main attractions include an 18 hole par-3 golf course, and a pair of restaurants, the more casual of which, Rusty’s, abuts the green. The hotel’s main bar is open-air—a very real perk for the current climate, both literal (mild-to-hot and dry) and figurative (Arizona is mostly “mask optional”). At the restaurant, Hearth ‘61, head chef Charles Wiley offers hearty American classics and an elegant wine selection on a moonlit outdoor patio: just the kind of fuel one needs for the next day’s drive to California.
The brand new Palihouse Santa Barbara has opened in the historic Presidio neighborhood, with plenty of nearby day trips—horseback riding in Santa Ynez, wine tasting in Solvang and Los Olivos, and surfing on the coast—in the California sunshine to be had. That is, once you’ve appropriately revelled in the fact that you’ve seen America the way it was meant to be seen: from the driver’s seat.