Thrill as your host drives across a continent!
Marvel at the beauty of the American nation!
Gasp at the stultification of the populace!
Read on to learn more about five days of heat, sleep deprivation, and breakneck speeds!
Day 1 (June 28): Portland, Oregon to Rock Springs, Wyoming
Although I’m a night owl I manage to get on the road at 8am. Traffic on Route 26 from Beaverton to Portland is heavy with the morning commuters. People sealed in their cars preparing for another day of routines as I start a routine of long distance driving that will last the next few days. The Portland skyline greets me as I travel on I-405 and connect to I-84.
Playing on the stereo is “Be In” by The Dandy Warhols, Portland natives themselves. It’s my farewell to Portland, a city that has been a home, refuge, and friend for six years. Almost to the day, actually; I moved from Connecticut to Portland over the July 4th weekend in 2000.
Once you clear Portland and its suburbs on I-84 you’re in the Columbia River gorge, and on this bright, clear June morning it’s gorgeous. It reminds me of what I will miss about Oregon’s landscapes. A bittersweet moment. The Dandy’s discography continues to play.
Eastern Oregon is very different. Like the Palouse in eastern Washington it’s steeply rolling hills covered with tree farms or tall, dry grass. The 75mph speed limit chews through the distances and soon I’m climbing the mountains of eastern Oregon into Idaho.
Southern Idaho is, to my eye, very beautiful. The Wasatch range is in view, its sawtoothed peaks still holding some snow. The immediate landscape is again steeply rolling hills, but less populated, less touched by the hands of man, and framed by these pretty mountains. I like southern Idaho.
A couple of hours spent in this scenery drops me into Utah. I stop for gas and a family from California strikes up a conversation,
“Where are you headed?” asks the patriarch.
“Is that near Salt Lake City?”
Yay, America. No wonder we’re seen as somewhat backwards and isolated by the rest of the world. Depressing.
Utah passes quickly, and I turn from I-84 east to I-80 east. I’ll be on I-80 now until Pennsylvania. It’s a long road ahead.
The 100F temperatures begin to take their toll as I cross into Wyoming. I’m determined to drive as far as I can, but I won’t compromise safety for additional mileage. I begin to see signs for Rock Springs (126 miles ahead!) which strikes me as odd. I remember Rock Springs from my trip from Connecticut to Portland, and remember it as little except a gas station, convenience store, bank, and a motel or two. It seems as good a place as any to stop for the night, though, so I resolve to press on until I get there.
Flashing lights in the median ahead signal police and fire activity. As I pass, I notice that in one of the emergency vehicle turnarounds there’s a disabled vehicle. A Cessna. A light aircraft parked on the highway. Welcome to the deserted west.
It’s a shock when I arrive. Rock Springs now has multiple gas stations, 8-12 motels, a Wal-Mart, banks, and has turned from a dusty nowhere south-central Wyoming town into a bustling little metropolis. There are no vacancies at any of the motels. Not a room to be had anywhere, not even a manger. An employee at the Holiday Inn tells me that oil and gas exploration has exploded in southern Wyoming in the past few years, and that since there are not enough homes for the influx of workers, the fossil fuel companies are housing their contractors in motels. Next potential available room is in Laramie, 3 hours up the road. There’s no way I can make it. Fortunately, a very nice employee of the Super 8 motel allows me to use their restroom for face washing and tooth brushing.
After 900 miles of driving in 100F temperatures I spend my first night on the road sleeping on the back seat of my Subaru Impreza in the parking lot of the Wal-Mart. Not fun. Not relaxing. But 900 miles are done, and I’m well on my way.
Day 2 (June 29): Rock Springs, Wyoming to Des Moines, Iowa
I awake at 5:30AM cramped and sweating. The sleep has been worse than the drive. So I resolve to start driving again.
I pull into a Rock Springs gas station to get my tank filled and discover the station requires pre-payment. I walk inside and tell them I want to fill my tank, show them that I have money to pay, and assure them I’m not going to steal gas. “You still have to give us some money,” the surly female clerk barks at me. I’m in no mood for this crap after my long drive and poor sleep. “Fine,” I say, “Here’s $400 dollars. Will that cover it?” She gives me a withering glare and says, “You don’t have to be like that about it.” “Well, you don’t have to treat honest people like potential criminals, either, but there we are. You made your choice, live with it. Garbage in, garbage out,” I say. I pump my gas and get the hell out of Petrochemical, Wyoming.
Southern Wyoming has a desolate beauty. High desert with nothing but sagebrush and snow fences. Occasional nowhere towns with gas stations and not much else. Again the 75mph speed limit (which means 85mph actual speed) eats the great, barren distance. Nothing but my Subaru, big rigs, and 3 mile long Union Pacific trains to show that humanity exists.
Striking are the number of signs warning of high winds, and the relative lack of wind farms. There are a few, but nothing that would seem to truly tap the potential energy of the place. I guess it’s tough to get the energy out, as someone would have to string untold miles of high-tension power lines. But still, the money being poured into fossil fuel exploration could be used to harness an energy source we know exists here, no? I guess I’m not overly surprised it’s not on the radar in the current political climate.
Wyoming is long. Long and hot. The sun beats on me like I stole something from it. The desolate beauty begins to wear thin, and by the time I get to Laramie I’m just aching for the Nebraska border. I make a long, steep ascent and find myself on the highest point in Wyoming on I-80; about 8,000 feet. Wyoming may be boring, but it’s a hell of a lot easier to cross the Rocky Mountains with a 300 mile climb and 300 mile descent than it is in, say, Colorado.
At last I pass Cheyenne and barrel on toward the Nebraska border. When I cross the elation is palpable, and I yell at the top of my lungs with gratitude to Nebraska for just being there.
I stop in Kimball for gas. Given the day’s previous experience I walk inside to pre-pay. “Just go ahead and pump,” the woman says, “we trust you.” Welcome to Nebraska.
I plow along at 85mph and watch the high grasslands of Nebraska give way to the flat fields that yield the nutrients of a nation. Nebraska, I think, gets a bad rap. Yes, it’s flat. Yes, the road is straight as an arrow. Yes, the landscape changes little for 400 miles. But it has its own beauty if you’re willing to see it. The huge fields. The lines of trees that mark the Platte and other rivers. The sky that truly feels like a canopy above you that stretches into infinity. I would probably hate being a teenager out here with “nothing to do,” but as an adult I can appreciate the quiet beauty of the place. It doesn’t take much imagination to see oceanic herds of bison coursing across these plains with groups of nomadic humans, perfectly attuned to the environment, giving chase and building a culture around the movements of a species.
As I approach Kearney and the Great Platte River Road Archway Monument I’m reminded of my experience seeing it six years ago. My friend John was driving his shift, but I was awake. We were both tired and stoned. Looming up out of the early morning Nebraska mist was the archway. Surreal and impressive. I stop and buy a postcard to send to John.
For the next two hours I watch a supercell develop over northern Kansas out my left-hand window. Awe inspiring, it stetches miles into the atmosphere. As I begin to wonder whether it will spawn tornados, it loses coherence and slowly dissolves. No doubt, I’m in the midwest.
About a hundred miles later I’m on the four lane highway through Omaha. Omaha, for a city of its size, must have the largest and best highway system. It’s worthy of a city four times its size. Across the Missouri River and I’m in Iowa. Nebraska has been a long, hot drive. I’m tired, but resolve myself to make it to Des Moines before I stop, making Day 2 another 900 mile day.
The difference between Nebraska and Iowa landscape is striking. It’s as if someone has flipped a switch and turned flat, fertile prairie into gently rolling, equally fertile hills. Iowa is a beautiful state. Period. And you have to love any state with a town named What Cheer.
I get to Des Moines and get my first bed and shower of the trip. Never has a shower felt so good. I can feel layers of sweat and sebaceous matter washing off me, and it is cathartic. Another 900 miles done. I feel a sense of accomplishment.
Day 3 (June 30): Des Moines, Iowa to Toledo, Ohio
I awake to gray skies and rain. Other motel guests must think me a madman as I stand in the parking lot packing my car and laughing, dancing, and yelling “Thank you!” to the heavens. But that cruel star that has turned me from a human into a meatsack piloting a Subaru has been obscured, and my joy is unrestrained.
That joy does not last long. As I cross the Mississippi River at Davenport, Iowa the sun returns, and not long after I realize this will be the most gruelling, yet most unproductive day of the trip.
I-80 in Illinois is a toll road. There is a single toll station in the southern suburns of Chicago. I have timed it so that I will pass through the tolls around 2pm. It’s a holiday weekend, and I figure 2pm will avoid the morning rush commute while still avoiding the post-work exodus of holiday vacationers. And it does.
The problem is that Illinois is building a new toll plaza, and instead of just closing the tolls during construction, or opting to waive tolls during peak activity, they have reduced I-80, the major east-west conduit for traffic through the central part of the USA, to two lanes of toll booth traffic. Lunacy. I crawl four miles to the toll booth in three hours. I could have walked it in half the time. Or less. The sun is beating down, sweat is pouring off me, and there is no breeze. It’s maddening. I realize that there’s no way I’m going to make central Pennsylvania (my goal of the day).
By the time I clear the tolls, cross Indiana, and enter Ohio, I’m done. My body is shutting down, my mind is foggy, and I need to stop before I collapse. A Howard Johnson’s in Toledo gives me a bed, a shower, and a wireless Internet connection that works in the lobby but not in my room. Ah well. I watch the last hour of “Revenge Of The Sith” and fall asleep.
I curse you, Illinois Department Of Transportation. May you be forced to drive your own nightmare. Forever.
Day 4 (July 1): Toledo, Ohio to Glens Falls, New York
Wake up call comes at 9am and I’m on the road by 10. Ohio takes longer than I’d like. Ohio is truly boring. The blandness is suffocating. The Pennsylvania border becomes some sort of parole hearing. No offense, Ohioans, but your state is just not my cup of tea.
At last I cross into Pennsylvania and enter the Allegheny mountains.
I love Oregon. The west coast is beautiful and has landscapes that are breathtaking. But as I enter mountains made smooth and and rolling with age, forests of hardwood trees, and myriad rivers that snake through the landscape I can’t help but feel a sense of homecoming. My heart belongs in these ancient woods, not the new fir growth of the west.
The Susquehanna is far, far over its banks. Apparently there have been torrential rains, and it shows. The river runs mud-brown and submerges the trunks of trees that once stood far back from the riverbank.
After a few hours I approach Wilkes-Barre and the end of my tenure on I-80. As I turn off onto I-81 I can’t help but feel a sense of joy that the long, hot trek across the heartland has ended. Through Wilkes-Barre and Scranton, across the former coal fields of northeastern Pennsylvania and I cross into New York. The last state on my trip. I can feel the end is near.
In Binghamton I pick up I-88. It turns out to be the best road of the trip. It travels through rural upstate New York farming villages, and is deserted. My guess is that I saw a total of 10 other cars traveling in the same direction, most of them local traffic. It’s night and day compared to I-80 in Illinois. I’m in heaven. The landscape is familiar and comforting, the road is mine, and the miles melt away.
In Albany I stop for gasoline turn onto I-87, the Northway. These are truly my old stomping grounds, having lived outside Albany for five years as a teenager.
I realize that although I could easily make it to Montreal before I need to sleep, I’d arrive at almost midnight, making my entry a nuisance for Olivier and Cindy, the current tenants of our new apartment. Not to mention that Kevin, my new landlord, has arranged for his wife Gina to get me keys. So a night in an upstate New York motel is in order.
My time living in New York pays off. I know that there will be no vacant motel rooms in Lake George on the weekend of Independence Day, and know that above Lake George there is precious little in the Adirondack State Park that is easily accessible from the Northway. So I stop in Glens Falls and crash, knowing that tomorrow I’ll be in Montreal within about two hours.
Day 5 (July 2): Glens Falls, New York to Montreal, Quebec
A wake up call at 9am gets me moving. I’m on the road within the hour, and the drive through the Adirondack State Park brings back memories of canoe and sailing camp in the late 1970s. Schroon Lake still looks as I remember it, and the lack of development in the park is gratifying. Most people think Manhattan when you say “New York,” but I think of the Adirondacks. If you’ve never been, I encourage you to see one of the last great wilderness areas of the northeast US.
After a quick stop in Plattsburgh for my last fix of cheap(er) US gasoline, I’m at the border. I present my work permit, answer a few quick questions, and I’m in Canada! Forty minutes later I’m in Montreal, at our new apartment, and getting a set of keys from Gina, our new landlady. Her husband Kevin is out of town on a fishing trip, so she and I have dinner together (she buys the ingredients, I cook the fettucine alfredo). First decent meal in almost a week. The comforts of home, despite living out of boxes.
It was a gruelling trip. Hot, sweaty, maddening at times, but wholly worth it. If you have the opportunity to cross the USA by car, take it. With all its problems (mostly political) it is still a beautiful country filled with (mostly) friendly and decent people.
And now my Canadian adventure begins …