Returning to the United States after five months abroad, we have been appreciative of many things we had formerly taken for granted: free refills on drinks, baggers in grocery stores, bathtubs in addition to showers, free local telephone calls, air conditioned restaurants. After shopping in small city grocery stores, it was a welcome change to find big supermarkets just about everywhere. And the prices are much less, especially for fresh produce. Most of all we were delighted by American service in hotels and restaurants; the well-trained staff seemed to be able to answer "yes" to all our questions!

We spent a month visiting family and friends in California. Lompoc, home of Amelia, our two-month old granddaughter, has foggy summer mornings but warms up to the 80s by midday. The Embassy Suites Hotel there has just installed high-speed wireless internet; there was no charge while we stayed there. We accompanied Amelia and her parents on a walk through the Santa Barbara Botanical Garden, which has a fine variety of plant life from the greater southwest.

Alameda, California, where our older son lives, also has an ideal year-round climate. Our daily route took us along the shores of San Francisco Bay, with a spectacular and lovely view of the Bay Bridge and the spires of San Francisco. We found our grandchildren in good order; Shannon had just The Nevada rock is colored grey and brown, much darker than the Utah rock.  The butte rises another 30 feet above a 200-foot hill Nevada desert butte graduated from UC Santa Barbara, though she has a few more units to complete; Dan had put together a wonderful scrapbook of his trip to France, and Emily acted in her first musical, a children's adaptation of The Music Man. While visiting family and friends we enjoyed excursions to the Chabot Space and Science Center in the Oakland hills where we watched a planetarium presentation of the nearness of Mars, and a 16th-birthday trip to Great America for Dan, Emily and friends. Somehow Bob was inveigled onto the Demon which performed two vertical loops and two corkscrews; it only took him ten minutes to recover from vertigo, although the children were immediately ready for more thrill rides!

From Lompoc to San Diego by car there are two choices. The first is about six hours of freeway driving, with rapid changes from stop-and-go tedium to high-speed bumper-to-bumper thrills punctuated by weaving maniacs. The second is city streets, and it's pretty much city all the way south from Santa Barbara, an hour's south of Lompoc. This enormous urban sprawl has mostly sprung into existence in the last fifty years. Driving past Camp Pendleton (a very distant relative) we saw a massive amphibious drill with many ships along the coast as the Marines trained for deployment. We enjoyed San Diego County, home of Elsa's sister, with its dramatic oceanside hills now crowded with modern homes, office buildings, and elaborately-stocked shopping centers. The seals were at play in the sheltered harbors at La Jolla, while families frolicked in the surf a hundred yards away.

At our preferred rate of travel we'd like to take a month to cross the country, with at least two nights stay at a time, and no more than four or five hours of driving a day. We've compressed that into two weeks in order to attend a genealogical conference in Orlando. We'd also prefer to be somewhere in the cool mountains or northern Canada during August, but instead we're crossing the hot deserts and southern plains.

Our first day's drive took us from San Diego to Las Vegas, and we reflected that somewhere about Barstow we entered the Great American West, home of cowboy clothing, dry sandy gulches and stunning mountains, spotted with mines, some played out, others still active. The giant thermometer in Baker read 112, but the Mad Greek was still serving delicious dolmades, feta cheese, tzaziki, hummus, kalamari olives and pita bread. It was only 111 in Las Vegas, and we stayed in cool casinos and hotel rooms catching up with email.

There's a lot of earthmoving equipment building an elaborate new road and bridge to bypass Hoover Dam. The project will take five years to complete. So the mountain goats have fled to more remote locations, but there were plenty of motorcyclists.

A T-Shirt on one of the riders described the ride they were on, from Las Vegas to Milwaukee, with stops at Flagstaff, Albuquerque, Amarillo, Seen from a distance, the cross stands tall and white above the beige grasses of the Texas prairie Largest cross, Groom, Texas Oklahoma City, Kansas City, and Springfield. This made us feel pretty spooky, because we had independently made reservations for Las Vegas, Flagstaff, Albuquerque, Amarillo, Oklahoma City and Kansas City! How had we managed unknowingly to stop at the same cities on the same days the Harley-Davidson riders had chosen for their summer tour? All along our trip they were staying at the same motels; we found them to be middle-aged, friendly, courteous, and very caring for their shiny touring bikes. The towns along the route all had the welcome mat out; in fact there was a two-day party laid on at the Harley dealership in Amarillo.

In Albuquerque we had lunch at The Cheesecake Factory and recommend it -- it was just as good as when we first found it last year. They run a wholesale cheesecake factory, with trucks lined up to be loaded from the warehouse in the back of the building, but at the restaurant in front the sandwiches are big and juicy and the service is friendly.

We ate at The Hickory Inn Cafe in Vega, New Mexico, population 960. When we asked for Tabasco sause, the waitress trotted over with it, grinning: if we had been regulars, she would have just tossed it our way, but since we were strangers, she decided to be more polite.

In Groom, Texas, we saw the largest cross in the Western Hemisphere - 190 feet of metal placed by a non-denominational group. The volunteers are excited about this project, which will include gardens, an empty tomb and more statues. They even have a website: This probably marked our entry into the Bible Belt, because we have encountered lots of Southern Baptist Churches and a few dry counties. We're back where drivers wave to one another, and strangers greet you with a smile. We hope these customs never change!

We had a nice Mexican luncheon in Hinton, Oklahoma, with picadillo and chile rellenos. The high-school kids came in, very well-behaved, proudly wearing their football shirts, starting their summer training. OU has just been rated #1 in the nation, and Friday night has a certain ritual meaning in the fall.

That's sort of a machine-gun report, because we haven't been doing much sightseeing, sticking to freeways in order to have time to visit family on the way East. Tomorrow we'll be back on country highways.