Road Trip (part 1)

Since my new job in Alaska is on the road system, I always planned to take a car. After some research, it became apparent the cheapest, easiest way to get said car, my belongings, and me to Alaska would be to drive across the Lower 48 and Canada.

Preparations for the road trip start almost as soon as I get back to the Lower 48 in late May. I research several different means of moving, including renting a truck, paying movers, and renting a trailer. The trailer quickly becomes the best (read: cheapest) option. Then I have to decide: Which car do I take? My car, Icarus, doesn’t have a trailer hitch. One can be installed, but is it really wise to then immediately use it to tow who knows how much stuff over 4000 miles? Through mountains? After much research, consultation, and internal debate, I decide to swap cars with Dad.

The Wednesday before I leave, we go to AAA to start the process of transferring the title for my new car, the Tank. Since I’m a resident of Alaska, I’ll have to complete the process there when I arrive.

The day before I leave, I pick up the trailer from a local U-Haul supplier. I get a chuckle out of the fact that the trailer bears a Florida license plate. It provides a humorous contrast to the Tank’s Pennsylvania plate, and both will look awesomely hilarious once I get to Alaska.

I started boxing and piling belongings in June. Even so, loading the trailer takes the better part of two-and-a-half hours. Dad and I do the organizing and  heavy lifting. Mom takes pictures, wraps fragile items in bubble wrap, and  makes sure the cats don’t sneak outside when we have to open the door. Around 10:30 that night, I declare things done until the next day.

The morning I leave, I finish packing up a few last-minute items. Dad and I finish loading the “big” stuff into the trailer. Smaller, more fragile items get placed in the car. My goal is to be on the road by 10, and I make it.

The first 250 or so miles are in familiar territory: Western Pennsylvania and most of Ohio. Good thing, too, as that allows me to pay more attention to how the Tank handles with a fully-loaded trailer attached. I get a little confused at the first rest stop: Do I park in the car or truck area? Fortunately, I see someone else’s car with a U-Haul trailer parked in an out-of-the-way corner of the car lot, and follow their example.

My goal for the first day is to make it past Chicago. My route doesn’t take me right through the city, but rather on one of the “bypass” highways around it. Even so, it’s still very crowded. Fortunately, everyone is moving at a slow enough pace and paying attention to everyone else that I have no difficulties. I end the day’s drive just south of the Illinois/Wisconsin border.

One bonus about the first day’s drive: my EZPass tag for the PA Turnpike is also accepted in every state I drive through, so I don’t have to worry about stopping at toll booths.

The second day of the road trip turns out to be the wettest so far: Rain starts about three-quarters of the way through Wisconsin and continues through the first half of Minnesota. Between the poor visibility, construction zones, and road conditions, I don’t have much time to look at the scenery.

Speaking of road conditions, even at this point the trip has proven educational. I’m used to blacktop asphalt (in many cases, faded to grey) and concrete. The blacktop in Indiana seemed to be a different mixture than I’ve driven on before, somehow stickier and more likely to grab the car. When the rain lets up in Minnesota, I notice that the blacktop here has faded to a rosy purple color.

The first day of the trip, I listened only to music. Today, I try a podcast many of my friends have talked about, “Welcome to Night Vale”. It’s as funny as they promised, but I quickly discover I should only listen to a few episodes at a time or else I’m in danger of falling asleep to the narrator’s voice. (The show is a fictional NPR-style news report from a desert town full of strange happenings.)

By the time I reach South Dakota, the sun shines again. Huge billboards line the road, advertising places like Wall Drug and Mount Rushmore, which are hundreds of miles away. I feel a little giddy, too, because one of my favorite TV shows, Warehouse 13, was set in this state, and as I move further west the landscape begins to look almost familiar.

At one point, I see signs for De Smet, and I have to smile. Some of the first chapter books I read were Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House stories, and her family settled in De Smet towards the end of her childhood. Sure enough, signs for the Laura Ingalls Wilder Historic Homes appear as the exit approaches. I’m tempted to make the trip, even if it is out of my way. Ultimately, I don’t; I’m just not sure enough about my timing (I’m meeting Dad in Seattle on Tuesday). I do make a promise to myself that one day I will go visit.

Ultimately, I stop for the night in a small town almost halfway across the state. Now I really feel like I stepped into the world of the Warehouse because, aside from the hill the town sits on, it’s the exact same type of small town depicted on the show. I have to keep reminding myself that it’s just a television show, and anyway, the town closest to the Warehouse would be further west.

Day three’s drive brings lots of incredible views, as I cover the rest of South Dakota, cut through the northeast corner of Wyoming, and enter Montana. (Despite the urging of the billboards, I don’t stop at either Wall Drug or Mount Rushmore; those will be visited on a future trip, too.) For some reason, I always pictured these states as being flat. I’m wrong, as any elevation map will show. After all, these are the foothills of the Rocky Mountains.

South Dakota also brings a new speed limit, and with it, a lesson in what the Tank can do. As soon as I cross the eastern border of the state, the speed limit jumps to 80 miles per hour. The Tank manages 70 (the previous highest limit) alright, but 80 proves to be too taxing when pulling a loaded trailer. It sinks my gas mileage like a rock, and I can hear the engine straining. So I keep the cruise control set at 70, and get very used to being passed.

In the South Dakota town where I spent the night, I saw a historical marker for the Lewis and Clark trail. When I enter Montana hours later, I see four more markers along the highway. I wonder what the explorers would have thought about the fact that I can travel the same distance in a day that took them months.

I stop for the night in Bozeman, Montana, about halfway through the state. I haven’t yet bothered with reserving a room ahead of time, and have done just fine so far. Most nights once I get to the hotel I go for a swim (I always check in to someplace with a pool), shower, take an hour or so to clean out my inboxes, do a stretching routine, and fall in to bed. Tonight, I make a point of looking at the map and seeing how much further I have to go until Seattle. I’m making good time: If I push, I could theoretically reach there tomorrow. However, it’s only the 23rd. Dad doesn’t fly in until the 25th. While part of me would like to explore the city, I also don’t want to deal with city hotel prices or taking the trailer through city traffic any more than I have to. So I start looking, and find a hotel about an hour and a half’s drive outside of the city. I can easily reach it, and then stay there for a day of rest before I pick up Dad and we head north. For the first time so far this trip, I make a reservation.

Montana becomes more and more mountainous as my drive continues the next day. I make a point of getting gas when I stop for lunch, because I don’t want something to happen in the mountains. The mountain roads in Montana aren’t scary, but I definitely have to pay attention to what I’m doing: Keep a close eye on the vehicles ahead of me, watch my mirrors for people behind me, remember to turn off the cruise control when going downhill. The last couple of days, I’d gotten used to keeping the cruise control on unless passing through a construction zone, and only occasionally seeing other vehicles. Thank goodness I’ve figured out how to best utilize my mirrors by now. (The trailer is short enough that I removed the side mirror extension after the first day, and I can actually sort of see around its edges in the rearview, just enough that I can tell when it’s safe to merge back into the right hand lane.)

The last few miles in Montana, I’m constantly going uphill as I watch the mile markers shrink towards zero. Just before they do, I reach the peak of whatever mountain I’m scaling. The car’s nose dips, and I barely see the “Welcome to Idaho” sign before I have to start downshifting again. I do notice a sign that warns trucks that the current steep grade goes on for the next five miles and think to myself, Hang on!

I’m only in Idaho for about an hour. The first towns I pass as I come down through the mountains are actually underneath the highway; it seems the designers decided it was easier to just build the road as a series of overpasses in some spots. The ground finally levels out somewhat, but the cruise control is off more than on for this part of the trip.

Of all of the places I’ve seen so far, Idaho wins for sheer amazingness. Conifer forests cover the mountains, which overshadow the road by a considerable distance. Yet as I reach the center of this part of the state, I also see some really amazing valleys. Towards the western border, the road passes near a HUGE lake that disappears over the horizon. (Later, I look it up on Google maps and discover it’s called the Harrison Slough, and it’s even bigger than I thought.) It would be so easy to just drive through the state without stopping, but I do pull in to the one and only rest area on that stretch of road to refill my water bottles. This also allows me to correctly state that I’ve stopped at least once in each state I’ve driven through.

It seems my wrong assumptions about things aren’t done yet. I thought Washington would be more like Idaho: mountains all over the place. Instead, once I pass Spokane I’m treated to more rolling prairie like that in South Dakota. Until I get closer to the Columbia River. At that point, the hills become more pronounced again.

About three miles before I reach the exit for the hotel, I hit the first real traffic of this whole trip. The construction zone there has the westbound highway down to one lane for a little bit. But that doesn’t seem to be the problem. For no reason I can see, cars are just stopped. On a lark, I pull out my phone and start the stopwatch. Inch by inch, I finally approach the exit I want, and I’m glad to leave the traffic behind. I stop and get gasoline before heading for the hotel. While at the pump, I stop the stopwatch: 27 minutes to get three miles. That’s just slightly faster than my top running speed. Now I’m really glad I didn’t try to push through to Seattle.

Maybe it’s the strain from all the traveling. Maybe it’s the fact that I’ve crossed three different timezones since the drive started. (Fun fact: When you drive, they put big signs by the road to tell you when you enter a different time zone.) Maybe my body is just reacting to the knowledge that I’m staying put tomorrow. Whatever reason, I’m so tired that I crash into bed around 8:30.

I sleep soundly until 6:30 this morning. Since I’m not getting on the road today, I don’t have to worry yet about packing up my things. I spend an hour or so figuring out logistics for tomorrow. I go out and take a look at the Tank’s oil level (the light briefly came on yesterday) and check that things in the trailer are still where Dad and I put them. My sister calls, and we visit for a bit. Dad and I talk several times to figure out what’s going on with the car (our best theory is that the heat yesterday caused the oil to foam) and to figure out where and how we’re meeting up at SeaTac. I look at the maps for the next part of the drive. I write up the first half of the trip as a blog post. In a little while, I’ll go swimming again. And tomorrow, the journey continues.

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2 comments
  1. I am so jealous of your amazing start to a new adventure. I have never been that far West in the US. I can picture parts of it due to your descriptions and Warehouse 13 connects (also a fan). Drive safe and enjoy the journey!

  2. Matthew Schuler said:

    Thanks for sharing! I enjoyed a trip out that way 4 years ago. I had the same reaction to Idaho. And on the return trip (from Seattle), I also managed to find my husband-to-be in Idaho. Best wishes to you as you continue your journey!

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