I learned how to drive on a dusty gravel road lined with farmhouses and cornfields. It was in my granddad’s old burgundy Ford pickup with vinyl seats and a radio that picked up no fewer than three country stations that I first started “driving”. It started with sitting on grandpa’s lap and steering because my legs were too short to reach the pedals. After a growth spurt in 5th grade I knew my feet would reach the pedals and I would whine and beg to sit in the driver’s seat and putter down the road at 15 mph. I don’t remember the first time I was finally allowed to man the pedals but I do remember swearing the only automobile I’d ever own would be an old beater of a pickup truck. My environmental sensibilities nixed the desire to drive a truck, however, my love for driving was born out there on that gravel road in rural Illinois.
I marvel at the Eisenhower Interstate System. While I also understand that some of the wonders of the United States were lost to the Interstates (including older highways like parts of Route 66, family homes and blasted mountains), I am inspired by these relatively safe roads that so easily take us all over the country. The modern American likely does not consider the struggles of our earlier settlers traveling through unexplored territories. Obviously this doesn’t take into account the far older history of Native Americans and their own explorations.
When I moved to Albany from Illinois I always thought I’d moved to a beautiful mountain-filled area of the country. I have traversed the length of the New York State Thruway and Northway several times in my time here. Last year, Drew and I even took 95 as far down as Savannah (because, really, who would want to go any further than that?). I’ve made other trips taking me through Ohio, Kentucky, Indiana, and so many other states. But none of those trips prepared me at all for the wonder that is driving west.
Day one took us on the familiar trip home to the Illinois side of the Mississippi River. Day two took us through Iowa, Minnesota and to the far side of South Dakota. South Dakota was more entertaining than I thought it would be as the Interstate was lined with amusing billboards and wide open plains. The landscape remained unchanged as the sun was setting when suddenly the horizon opened up to the Missouri River. It came out of nowhere and was breathtakingly beautiful! And sadly, with three more hours to go to get to our destination of Rapid City it was dark as we drove through the Badlands. We awoke the next morning long before dawn and drove into the Black Hills National Forest in order to see Mount Rushmore. We arrived at the break of dawn and there was no one taking money at the entrance. Only two other people were at the monument. It was cool but much smaller than I expected. We decided to continue into the forest and see Crazy Horse. Unfortunately the fog was so dense we saw absolutely nothing at the memorial except for the guy working the shop who was a total dickass. We continued through the forest which was beautiful. Eventually the road deposited us onto the red roads of Wyoming. I was surprised by the oil drilling across the road from wide open fields of cattle. The cute little town of Newcastle was blighted by the Newcastle Refinery which created an odor that I think is still lingering in my nose. Approaching the mountains in Bighorn National Forest, an eastern spur of the Rockies, was just a taste of what was to come. I wish we had gotten on 14 and crossed Bighorn and the basin and continued to Yellowstone, but that will definitely be on the list for a future trip.
They don’t call Montana Big Sky Country for nothing. Other than the occasional mining in the mountains there was never an interruption to the beauty of the landscape. We watched lightning storms in the distance over the upcoming mountains. Drew and the dogs were dozing through an impressive show in the sky when we passed through Livingston. Oh Livingston. Did you know that Livingston is one of the windiest places in the USA? I didn’t. I’ve seen those crosswind warning signs on various highways in the past but have never really encountered anything like I did outside of Livingston. At first I saw something ahead blowing across on the highway and thought, gee, I think I just saw a crosswinds warning sign about a mile back. Seconds later the van was hit with such a gust of wind we swerved violently. And it wasn’t just us. All traffic suddenly slowed to 40-50 mph and moved into the right lane. I was behind a horse trailer that was all over the place. I was probably on my 3rd hour of driving and it took all my might to keep the van steady on the road. Drew and the dogs slept blissfully as my heart was racing and I tried to keep the van on the road. I couldn’t believe how hard it was to drive. It started raining but we passed into an area with mountains on both sides making it somewhat easier to manage. Bozeman was only a short trek further on up the road. We stopped at a gas station, I peeled my fingers off the steering wheel and walked inside in a total daze. I was embarrassed over what seemed like an overreaction on my part but I later learned that those crosswinds have turned over tractor trailers, at which point I realized I’m surely not the only person to have been totally freaked out by the Livingston Crosswinds. Bozeman was this mecca of good fortune, the gas station had a VARIETY of delicious fair trade organic coffees (what?!?) and I bought a winning scratch off ticket and won back my dollar (which I didn’t discover until days later, but I’ll hang onto it for my next trip back to MT!). Drew drove the rest of the day until we hit Missoula, a surprisingly progressive gem tucked in the middle of five mountain ranges. Missoula had those most-excellent drive-through coffee stands, great public transportation and a Five Guys. Score one to Missoula!
The next morning we drove around Missoula at dawn just to check things out. Passing by Hellgate High School we were intrigued by this mysterious little find of a town (and I wondered if there was a chosen one named Buffy at the school, is a hellgate the same as a hellmouth? Actually, the answer no but a hellgate is nearly as disturbing as the hellmouth, but with real people slaughters). As we hit the main highway I read the Missoula Wiki page to Drew as we enjoyed the sun dawning behind us, burning off the low fog over the Clark Fork River. We were in a construction zone which meant it was a slow drive, which was fine, it was one of the most beautiful drives we’ve ever taken. We were both in high spirits as we made our way through the Montana Mountains with an afternoon goal of Seattle. We were eager to continue west. Our slow morning ascent topped out at Lookout Pass, elevation 4,710 feet. Moments later the Idaho welcome sign appeared as the highway seemed to disappear. As the road cut sharply and steeply to the left I was stuck in the passenger seat looking down a sheer drop off. The only thing that was preventing us from going over was our ability to steer and a grossly inadequate knee-high jersey barrier. Typically this should be the point where I start taking pictures, instead I grabbed the suicide handle and proceeded to freak the fuck out. Luckily Drew expects this type of thing and was my rock in that driver’s seat. By this time the fog had completely dissipated and it was a gorgeous September morning, how on earth has anyone ever driven this in the snow?
Drew glanced over, failing to completely grasp the mortal peril we were in and asked, “Where’s your sense of adventure?!?” “Back in Missoula!!” I shrieked.
We continued on our terrifying adventure and were eventually rewarded with the truly spectacular views of Lake Coeur d’Alene. I’ll tell you this, my old notions of Idaho being a boring state known for potatoes is long gone. It’s been replaced by feelings of awe, wonder and sheer terror. I have a new state slogan for the state, “Idaho: Who knew?”
Crossing into eastern Washington was as depressing as I’d been warned. Unlike the surprisingly entertaining highways of South Dakota, eastern Washington was just a massive wasteland of nothing. I took over driving duties for this stretch since I was actually grateful for a boring, desolate stretch of roadway after my morning panic attack. I was doing well until we approached the Columbia River. We were climbing and the road suddenly dropped off sharply. I steeled myself but my mind was just full of images of me losing control of the van. It’s totally based on dreams where I’m driving and absolutely lose my ability to pilot the vehicle resulting in horrific crashes. But really, there’s no reason I should lose my ability to drive the car but I really started to panic. For as much as I love driving I think I have a real and valid phobia of mountains. Having grown up in the rolling plains I’ve never really been exposed to terrifying landscapes. Even my time in Albany and Arizona had done nothing to prepare me for the Rockies. My encounter with the Columbia River was nothing compared to the mountains in our rear view but I was a ball of nerves anyway. I spotted a scenic lookout pull off and quickly got off the road before I killed us all with my brain.
In a way we really benefited from my second freakout of the day because we would have otherwise missed out on the incredible views just a few miles from the environmental disaster that is the Hanford Site. We hopped back in the car, crossed the Columbia River and made our way to our next potentially dangerous part of the road, the Snoqualmie Pass in the Cascades, home of their own hazardous micro-climate and the only snow shed on all of I-90. After a day of clear skies and sunshine, as we drove into the Cascades and towards the pass, the weather turned predictably rainy and messy. But it was less scary than I’d been anticipating.
Seattle’s roads were a mess. I wonder if anyone lives in those $800,000 bungalows or if they just spend all of their time in traffic. I will never complain about Albany traffic again. Seattle drivers are fast (when traffic actually moves), aggressive and yet, they will ALWAYS stop for pedestrians. When we finally got off of the Interstate in the Greenwood neighborhood the first thing I noticed was a homeless person sipping coffee from a local coffee shop which totally gelled with my preconceived notions of Seattle: it’s completely unaffordable but has great coffee.
Our next big town was Portland. There was zero traffic, even during “rush hour”, people drive at or below the speed limit and take great care to look out for pedestrians and cyclists. We drove into downtown on a Friday in the late afternoon, easily found street parking and left that part of the city with all the other daily commuters in an organized, stress-free fashion. The street cars and buses each had their own dedicated lane and everything seemed to work smoothly. I thought maybe I was in some sort of lighthearted musical where everyone was going to break out in song at any moment, proclaiming the joys of laid-back Portland.
A few days later we found ourselves in the Rogue Valley of Southern Oregon. While the landscape was dramatic and there were mountains, the main Interstate wasn’t terribly scary (until the California border!). We stayed in Ashland. Most of the town is built onto the mountainside and the neighborhood roads can be treacherous. We stayed in a Cabin on Mount Ashland. It was on a dirt road 3 miles beyond where Google Streetview allows you to preview. I wasn’t aware we were going to be on a narrow, winding dirt road with a sharp drop off down the mountain and no railings. As we hugged the mountainside blind turn after blind turn I begged Drew to slow down. 10mph was just TOO FAST. Once at the cabin we realized why driving that road is worth it.
And really, after our stay in Ashland the rest of our trip lacked terror (unless you count the gas station bathroom in Bakersfield). We drove through Sonoma and Napa Valley at sunset. It looked like a pretty wine label! We enjoyed the San Francisco morning commute, complete with crotch rockets cutting between stopped cars. The Golden Gate was majestic and the new Bay Bridge was a masterpiece in bridge design (if you ignore the failing bolts). We had planned to take Tioga Road through Yosemite but part of the road was closing at night due to snow, you weren’t allowed to stop and get out of the car due to the fires and, frankly, I was a little more than scared of yet another mountain road at that point. So we decided drive straight south at high speeds down the 99 in California. I mean, who really wants to be at 9,000+ feet and encounter snow? Not me. I really do want to get back to Yosemite and make it its own trip with camping and hiking and all that jazz.
The deserts of Arizona and New Mexico were a welcome change of gorgeous, flat scenery with mountains in the distance. We were careful not to drive into the big hole in Arizona, but we did get awfully close to the edge on foot. The storm we hit in Texas was a doozy and we watched it from a distance for hours while the sun was setting behind us while still in New Mexico…and once the sun set, the lightning turned night into day. Spectacular doesn’t even begin to describe it. The rest of the roads were roads. Did I fail to mention Oklahoma? Oh good. The road grows prettier with each mile as you head north again and even Kansas didn’t fail to disappoint with its simple beauty except for that one oil field with the Jesus sign. Seriously, I’m wondering Where Would Jesus Drill? The only thing that’s changed on I-80 in Iowa from my childhood is that the pig farms and their old familiar smell now smell of the methane from factory farmed pigs. I let Drew cross the Mississippi on the I-74 bridge which normally I’d try to bypass since that rickety old thing is probably going to fall into the river one of these days.
Traveling these roads really opened my eyes to the country. It gave me a new sense of admiration for the big dreamers in our history; from the early explorers like Lewis and Clark to the architects of the Interstate Highway System. I was inspired, I was overjoyed, I was moved to tears by a redwood tree, I was scared out of my wits by mountain passes, I was pushed to my limit by wind but more than anything, I was alive.